Major accuses Blair of `zero honesty'

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The election dirt started flying yesterday as John Major accused Tony Blair of "zero honesty" and hypocrisy over the Labour leader's support for action to clear the streets of beggars.

Mr Blair will today hit back by drawing up Labour's battle lines with the Tories on Mr Major's alleged weak leadership, and education. The Labour leader will seek to contrast his leadership with Mr Major's lack of control over his "ungovernable" party.

The Prime Minister, in a polished 40-minute press conference, set the tone for the presidential-style election campaign which the Tories will be mounting. He set out three main themes for the Tory fight-back: the economy, Europe and opposition to Labour's plans for constitutional reform.

And in the course of the questioning, Mr Major answered one of the eight key electoral questions raised yesterday in The Independent. Asked whether he would propose Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, Mr Major gave a firm "no". The Prime Minister, who was last night holding talks with the Dutch Prime Minister, Wim Kok, over Britain's objections to German plans for a multi-speed Europe, said that there was no "remotely plausible case for leaving".

He traded blows with Mr Blair over the Labour leader's "conversion" to Mr Major's views on tackling the problem of beggars on the streets.

Mr Blair's support for "zero tolerance" for petty crime, including aggressive begging, "beggared belief", he said. The Prime Minister had been attacked by Mr Blair for his "vindictiveness ... pettiness and small mindedness" when Mr Major called for similar action in 1994. "Given what I said then and what Labour said of me, I would think Labour's hypocrisy beggars belief. It is a case of zero detail and zero honesty from them," he said.

The Labour leader's support for clearing the streets drew fire from groups supporting the homeless. But the Labour leadership appeared satisfied with the coverage given to Mr Blair's remarks in the Big Issue magazine, underlining his message that Labour will have a hard edge to its social policies. Mr Blair's "rebuttal unit", however, denied the Prime Minister's charge of hypocrisy, insisting that Mr Blair had called for firm action against "aggressive beggars" in May 1994, but had always insisted that it should be coupled with action to tackle the causes of homelessness.

The cross-fire over the issue of beggars on Britain's streets offered confirmation that the election campaigning could quickly descend into the gutter, particularly after the threat by the publicist Max Clifford to dish more dirt on the Tories.

It also led to the spectacle of leading politicians lining up to say whether they gave money to beggars. Mr Blair said he did not. Mr Major said he did - millions in taxpayers' money for hostel beds. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, said he did not give to beggars. John Prescott, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, said he did not give money to beggars. "I sometimes offer to buy them a cup of tea at King's Cross Station. I'm not sure they always want to take me up," he said.

Giving an upbeat account of the "sparkling" prospects for the economy, the choice before the British electorate would be between "smiles and tears", Mr Major said. He denied the Tory election posters - featuring a family shedding a "red tear" - amounted to negative campaigning, but Mr Prescott also carefully distanced Labour from Mr Clifford's antics.

The first Guardian/ICM poll of the year, published today, gives Labour a 17-point lead over the Tories. Adjusted figures put Labour on 48 per cent, down two points on December, the Tories on 31 per cent, unchanged from last month, and the Liberal Democrats up one point.

But the Tories were up four points, to 29 per cent when voters were asked which party had the best economic policy. Labour, at 32 per cent, was down two points, and the Liberal Democrats at 6 per cent, down one point.