Major and Blair in Dunblane feud

Exclusive: How the Scottish tragedy set the party leaders at each other's throats
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The Independent Online
John Major has made a bitter private attack on Tony Blair in a row over the handling of the Dunblane tragedy which has poisoned relations between the two party leaders.

The Prime Minister has told friends that Mr Blair and his party are "untrustworthy" - and accused him of breaking an agreement not to highlight the Dunblane issue during the party conferences.

Labour accepts that it called for Lord Cullen's report into the massacre to be held back until after the conferences, but it denies that this implied there was any "truce" between the parties. One senior Labour source said yesterday: "It is untrue. There was no agreement."

The personal dispute stretches back to the events at Dunblane itself immediately following the massacre, when Scottish Labour Party officials felt their leader was treated shabbily. The Independent on Sunday has learned that:

Mr Blair was invited to visit the scene with Mr Major only at the insistence of Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, who had pioneered a bi-partisan approach over the tragedy with his shadow, George Robertson

Mr Blair understood that no media interviews would be given by party leaders before their school visit, but Mr Major spoke on BBC Scotland

Mr Forsyth and Mr Robertson had to intervene again to ensure that Mr Blair was not relegated to one of the rear cars of the motorcade in Dunblane; the Prime Minister was in the second vehicle

The wreath laid by Mr Blair, which was provided by the Government, was more modest than Mr Major's

Mr Blair was not made aware that Norma Major would be attending, and therefore did not travel with his wife, Cherie.

The Dunblane tragedy and the controversy about firearms overshadowed the party conferences, with the Snowdrop campaigner, Ann Pearston, making an emotional appeal for gun control at Labour's meeting in Blackpool. She was invited two weeks before Labour's conference by Mr Robertson.

The speed with which Labour moved on the issue of gun control - to a position proposing the banning of all handguns - has caused particular anger in Conservative circles. Some MPs believe Mr Major's personal anger at this Labour manoeuvre motivated his direct attack on Mr Blair's private schooling during his party conference.

Then, in an unprecedented line of attack from a Tory leader, Mr Major dismissed his opponent with the slogan: "New Labour, Old School Tie". A Conservative source said there was now "real needle" in the relationship between Mr Major and Mr Blair.

A Conservative Central Office source added: "Our side thought Labour had agreed that we wouldn't break ranks until after Lord Cullen had reported. We gave Blair a fair crack of the whip over Dunblane. There may have been some argy-bargy over whether he should visit with Major, but he was allowed there in the end. Thatcher would not have invited a leader of the Opposition. He got his revenge by welching on a deal."

The Government now faces a tough fight to get its proposals on gun controls in the Firearms (Amendment) Bill through the Commons. The Ulster Unionists have given the Government some breathing space by indicating that they will not oppose its proposals to limit the ban to handguns above .22 calibre.

Labour yesterday stepped up the pressure, indicating that it believes it can bring down the Government before next May, when a general election is due. That could only happen after a defeat in the Commons brought about a Motion of Confidence.

There remains a possibility of a Conservative backbench rebellion over gun control, with some MPs arguing that the Bill goes too far, others that it does not go far enough. A senior Labour source said: "We must never be complacent but there is a real sense of decay about this government and this is the time to move in for the kill."