Major: `I think we can win' Major

PM gets on his soapbox for May election
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The Independent Online
John Major yesterday opened the 1 May election campaign with an appeal to the voters to accept that if it was time for a change, then "we are the change". That plea was later reinforced by a warning that the election was not a game.

But Tony Blair said: "The Tories keep saying to people that this is the best Britain can be. What I say to people is that Britain can be better than this." His party's appeal will undoubt-edly be broadended by the latest in a long line of Labour converts - the Sun, which claimed after the last election it was the Sun "wot won it" for Mr Major in 1992, and in today's edition comes out for Mr Blair.

For the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown welcomed the chance for the voters to say what they thought of the Government's "broken promises, incompetence and divisions".

The start of the six-week election campaign was at long last triggered by the Prime Minister with an impromptu Cabinet, a visit to the Palace, and a return to Downing Street, where he announced to television cameras the election timetable.

Parliament will sit for the rest of this week, clearing an agreed programme of residual legislation before rising on Friday. It will not meet again before being formally dissolved, by proclamation, on 8 April.

Before going out on to the hustings, taking his soapbox from the last election on a flying visit to Luton - a town with two highly marginal Tory seats - Mr Major said that the Government had, since 1979, given the country "a revolution in choice".

He told reporters in Downing Street that in spite of the "bruises and difficulties" he was proud of his party's 18-year record, before turning to address his biggest weak-spot - the argument that it is time for a change.

"If people are looking for change," Mr Major said, "we are the change, and we'll carry forward what we've been doing for the last 18 years."

Later, in a written statement, he added: "A general election is not some faraway spectator sport or a TV talk-show. It will affect life behind every front door in the land." What was at stake, he warned, were issues "that touch the cold hard realities of 56 million daily lives."

Mr Blair told Sky News the voters would remember Tory promises of 1992, when Mr Major promised tax cuts, and then raised taxes; his promise not to extend VAT to fuel, before doing so; and his promise to bring crime under control, with violent crime still rising

Labour would make a difference on schools, the health service, crime, and jobs. "We aren't just going to have the rewards going to an elite few at the top," he said.

In a London speech last night, Mr Ashdown said: "The last election is remembered for the War of Jennifer's Ear. I want this campaign to be remembered for the Plans for Jennifer's Education ... I am de- termined that, every day of this campaign, we focus on how to make Britain the world's number one learning society in the next century."

All three parties will today hold press conferences, with Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown, each putting forward their themes of the day.

But the Prime Minister's first public acceptance of Labour's challenge for a televised leadership debate was last night getting bogged down in the detailed conditions of Mr Major's terms of engagement.

He said in Downing Street: "I very much wish to meet Mr Blair in debate." But he then delivered a series of qualifications that left Labour, the Liberal Democrats and other minority parties significantly dissatisfied.

Explaining why he did not think that he should have to face both Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown, the Conservative leader said: "After the election, either Mr Blair or I will be Prime Minister. I have some sympathy for Mr Ashdown's position. I am sure the broadcasters might find some way to involve him, but I think the principal debate will be between the leader of the Labour Party and myself."

A senior Labour source said last night that it was "silly" of broadcasters to respond to that by trying to find ways around the law; trying to accommodate Mr Major's demand for the exclusion of Mr Ashdown.

The source also said the public should not be shut out of the debate; a selected audience should be given the opportunity to put their questions to the party leaders.

And as for the Tory preference for one anchor-man to chair the debate, Labour said they would prefer a number of prominent media "heavyweights" to be given the chance of grilling the leaders, and putting them and their policies under the microscope.

In Downing Street, Mr Major said: "I believe this election is winnable. Not only do I think it's winnable, but I think that we are going to win this election.

"I remember being asked that on the doorstep of Downing Street in 1992 and I am still here in 1997 and I expect to be here after the election."

But even as Mr Major was speaking, Mr Blair was visiting a South London school before embarking on a visit to Gloucester - a Tory marginal Labour needs to win if it is to get a working Commons majority.