The Prime Minister calmly but firmly resisted the temptation to lurch to the right in response to a modernised Labour Party, and instead set out to steer his party back to its traditional values with a declaration that 'change for the sake of change should never appeal to any Conservative. In a world of bewildering change, this party must stand for continuity and stability, for home and health.'
In a highly personal and warmly received leader's speech to the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth, laden with promises of consolidation rather than further radical change, Mr Major appealed to the political middle ground with a pledge to end six years of upheaval in education and his most passionate testimonial yet to the National Health Service.
Mr Major underpinned his emphasis on public services by saying Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, would embark on the consultative first stage of a long- term programme to provide nursery education for every four-year- old whose parents want it. True to one of his own passions, he announced plans for at least two hours a week of compulsory team sport for pupils aged from five to 16. And he made it clear there would be no more changes to the national curriculum for five years.
Devoting only the shortest of passages to Europe - the issue which most divides the party - Mr Major avoided the nationalistic rhetoric so much in evidence from Michael Portillo and his fellow right-wingers this week and went out of his way to say a deal at the 1996 EU inter-governmental conference would be 'in the best interests of Britain'.
But he underlined his determination to keep broad support behind his strategy of 'variable geometry' by reassuring sceptics he would veto any changes 'which would harm Britain'.
Mr Major did not mention Tony Blair, the Labour leader, by name. But he deftly pre-empted further pressure to widen the 'clear blue water' between the Tories and Labour by saying: 'It is probable that at the next election the Government and the alternative government will both be talking Tory language. But there is a difference. Only one will mean it.'
Shrugging off the debate between the party's left and right on how to beat an opposition converted to the market, he declared that Labour by 'every speech and every copied aspiration' had demonstrated the Tories had already 'won the battle of ideas - an astonishing triumph'.
The Prime Minister sought to lift his audience's horizons towards an epoch of long-term, low- inflation growth by reviving the startling suggestion - vindicated by history - made in 1954 by Rab Butler, then Chancellor, that 'living standards could double in the country in 25 years'.
Mr Major said 'If we're able to keep inflation down - as we must - and control public spending . . . it means stronger growth. Improving the services we care about - education, health the police.'
He lent a personal flavour to his emphasis on the NHS and standards in state education by stressing the care he and his parents had received from the NHS and by recalling he was 'just burned enough' by his indifferent schooling to realise its importance.
The security that is offered by the NHS would not be removed 'while I live and breathe'. And he even went out of his way to praise the teaching unions for their campaign against pupil violence.
But his highlighting of education, health and law and order also reflects research by Conservative Central Office which shows disaffected Tory voters, while keen on tougher penalties for crime, are also deeply concerned about the NHS and much more concerned about standards in education than the rhetoric of markets and choice.
Mr Major said he was more interested in the 'practical thing' than the 'vision thing', but he also joined Mr Blair and the Liberal Democrats' leader, Paddy Ashdown, in calling for an era of 'grown-up politics' which shunned 'ritual conflicts'.
Conference reports, pages 4, 5
Leading article, page 12
Andrew Marr, page 13
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