Major finds clear blue water

Upbeat Prime Minister seeks to widen the 'great divide' between Tories and Labour
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The Independent Online

Political Editor

John Major yesterday identified the Tories' fifth-term mission as the modernisation of Britain into a low-tax, deregulated, "enterprise centre of Europe" capable of tackling the economic and social challenges of the 21st century while Labour was still responding to those of the 1980s.

An effectively delivered, strategically coherent and warmly received speech, deliberately widening what the Prime Minister called the "great divide" between the Tories and Labour on education, tax, crime and devolution, appeared last night to have persuaded many party activists that they now have at least a fighting chance of bucking the polls and winning the next election.

"Millions", he assured his party, had still to make up their minds over whether to back the Tories or the "lightweight alternative" offered by Labour.

Mr Major projected Conservatism as the force to tackle the competitive threat from the tiger economies of Asia, in a closing leadership speech designed to stamp the Blackpool conference as the turning point for a "refreshed and uplifted" Tory party.

Unusually for a prime ministerial conference speech, Mr Major's rallying call, to a party that had been rocked at the outset by the devastating defection to Labour of the MP Alan Howarth, included a busy series of substantive policy announcements. They included a 5,000 increase in the number of police officers, a doubling of the 30,000 state-funded assisted places at public schools, and the enlistment of MI5 and a new national crime squad to support the fight against drugs and organised crime.

Mr Major committed himself again to moves to make all schools grant-maintained and, for the first time, to a new freedom for religious and specialist schools that will allow, for example, a growth in Islamic schools. In a deftly populist measure for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Mr Major announced that the annuity paid to holders of the Victoria and George Crosses would rise from pounds 100 to pounds 1,300.

He went out of his way to lavish praise on his Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, who is currently locked in a battle with the Treasury over her budget for next year. And he excoriated the privately educated Labour leader, Tony Blair, for "kicking away a ladder" from children in low-income homes by pledging to abolish the assisted places scheme.

This line of attack - in a speech that one government colleague described as "pure Stanley Baldwin" straddling both wings of the party - suggests Mr Major may now seek to claim that he rather than Mr Blair understands the aspirations of the low-income voter.

Mr Major managed to combined a promise to draw on the Tories' historic, and perhaps implicitly pre-Thatcherite, attachment to a "wise and kindly way of life" with a hard-edged emphasis on the sharp dividing lines between his own party and Labour on the critical domestic issues of the economy, law and order, education and constitutional change.

He insisted, too, that "one thing in our Tory tradition" that had inspired him was the party's "historic recognition that not everyone is thrusting and confident and fit. Many are not, and they deserve protection. With a Conservative government they will always get it." In a speech that drew freely from his own experience, he spoke of the joy and the heartbreak that had characterised the garden ornament business run by his father 40 years ago, which failed owing to his ill health. "I know what it's like when the money for the week runs out by Thursday," he said.

"I know the knockers and sneerers who may never have taken a risk in their comfortable lives aren't fit to wipe the boots of the risk-takers of Britain."

But, reminding the conference that it was also "a strong Tory tradition that you and I look after ourselves and our families before we turn to others to pay our bills", he left an appreciative audience in no doubt that the Tories' "welfare system for the 21st century" would not tolerate those on welfare "who don't work" while rewarding "prudence, thrift and family responsibility".

He foreshadowed potentially one of the most far-reaching proposals in the next general election programme by highlighting the role that "the more flexible use of pensions" could play in helping the elderly pay for their own future care.

While promising that if others in Europe "go federalist, Conservative Britain will not", Mr Major's language on Europe was several light years away from the stridently nationalistic tone that was struck by his Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, on Tuesday.

Asserting that he was "for Europe, not against it", Mr Major appealed for understanding of why Britain's partners wanted European unity as a guarantee against the wars and dictatorship that they had suffered over the last 50 years.

But the Prime Minister warned that the British government had not entered Europe "for a new tier of government", or "for socialism through the back door". Promising that he was committed to the eventual abolition of capital gains and inheritance tax, as well as the reduction of income tax, Mr Major declared that while the Government had had to put taxes up "to protect the vulnerable" in the recession, high spending and taxation were "no longer an option".