Chief Political Correspondent
John Major last night promised to beef up government policies on education and law and order at the beginning of the national tour aimed at lifting Tory morale. The Prime Minister also appealed to party supporters to put the era of Thatcherism behind them.
In his most explicit call for the party faithful to stop judging him by Baroness Thatcher's record, Mr Major told a private audience of Tory members in Bedford they were facing a changed world with different problems. He said the problems faced by previous governments - the Soviet Union and trade union power - were in the past, a party official said.
Although he avoided mentioning Baroness Thatcher by name, Mr Major was clearly anxious to assert his authority after his leadership victory by telling the meeting "We now have to look to a distinctive agenda for a different world, changed problems and aspirations. We have to look to Conservative philosophy through to the next century."
After taking his tour to Scotland today, spending the weekend with the Queen in Balmoral and visiting Newcastle on Monday, Mr Major will in Birmingham outline his plans for education, with greater powers for grant-maintained schools. They are expected to include the power to select pupils, meeting Tory aspirations to revive the old grammar schools.
The product of the national tour and hundreds of policy meetings will be presented as a draft manifesto at the Harrogate Conservative Party Council next spring, which is intended to give Tories a lift-off for the general election campaign. Mr Major is seeing invited audiences of party supporters with one aim in mind - to show that he understands the reasons for the low morale which led to the humiliating defeats for the Tories in the local elections in May.
In an unusual move, he said yesterday that he wanted the party to "take ownership" of the general policy which the government would be laying out over the next 18 months - a clear signal he realises he has to persuade the party to accept the policy.
He also intends to go the full term before calling the General Election in 1997.
In effect he relaunched his leadership at the Conservative Party Council in Birmingham in the spring this year, but that fell flat when it emerged that there were few new policies to go with the new image. This time the party leadership is promising to provide new policies, but some of the Tory supporters invited to meet the Prime Minister yesterday remained sceptical.
Mike Flint, vice-chairman of Luton North Conservatives who lost his council seat in May after 22 years said he was impressed by Mr Major's performance but was waiting to see what policies emerged.
t A Gallup poll in today's Daily Telegraph shows Labour's lead over the Tories has dropped by seven percentage points since July to 28 per cent. The wider Gallup 9000 survey shows the Labour lead falling just one point, although it is at its lowest since Tony Blair took office. The poll findings are: Labour 54.5 per cent (down 3 points), Conservatives 26.5 (up 4), Liberal Democrats 14 (down 0.5) Others 5 (down 0.5).