Major prepares party for 'the fight of our lives'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Parliamentary Correspondent

John Major yesterday declared the Tory party healed and hungry for a fifth term in office. He told the conference that millions of voters had still to make up their minds and set out to attract them with the prospect of tax cuts and a pledge of more police officers.

Mr Major said the share of the nation's wealth taken by public expenditure had to be cut to below 40 per cent of GNP and promised to double the assisted places scheme, under which a limited number of bright children from less well-off homes get help to go to a private school.

"Our hopes for our country are not tired. Our ambitions are not dimmed," the Prime Minister said at the close of a speech lasting 70 minutes. "We stand for a wise and kindly way of life that is rooted deep in our history."

If Labour was beaten one more time, he said, socialism would have been driven out of Britain for good. Whoever won the next election would inherit the strongest economy for decades: "We built that economy. It wasn't easy ... and I'm not in the mood to hand it over to any other party to wreck after all that ... so we're going to mount the fight of our lives."

The road to hell was paved with Labour's good intentions. The Social Chapter would clobber businesses, the minimum wage would destroy jobs and unions would be given privileges that even Michael Foot had not dreamt of in the 1970s.

In the briefest of references, Mr Major said that the Liberal Democrats supported all of Labour's "nonsense". But it did not matter. "As we saw the other day, they're the only party in British political history that has had its entire battle plans wiped clean off the media by a goldfish - my goldfish."

The millennium would bring shifts in world power, more competition, furious changes in technology and, even with growing wealth, more welfare problems. The state could not do everything."We should help individuals shape their own future. Help them - but not nanny them. Conservatism is choice. Choice is liberty ... we should offer choice whenever we can, with every policy we devise.

"But if there's one thing in our Tory tradition that has inspired me, that helped bring me into this party, it's our historic recognition that not everyone is thrusting and confident and fit. Many are not, and they deserve our protection."

Mr Major said that in the recession, taxes had had to be raised to protect the vulnerable. "Now the recession is over, and as soon as prudent but not before, we must get taxes down again. I don't only mean income tax. I mean the taxes that damage investment and stultify wealth creation." Inheritance and capital gains tax had to be cut and ultimately abolished.

The Prime Minister drew loud applause for a personal commitment to small businesses. They were the route to more jobs, he said. "When I was a small boy, my bread and butter was paid for by my father's small business. He made garden ornaments 40 years ago and some people find that rather humorous. I don't. I see the proud, stubborn, independent old man I loved who ran the firm and taught me to love my country, fight for my own and spit in the eye of malign fate."

The party faithful were similarly delighted by his forthright rejection of a federal Europe. "Often in the watches of the night I have pondered the choices. But federalism wouldn't work for us. Our partners must understand that it is politically and constitutionally unacceptable." Britain had entered Europe for prosperity, for co-operation, for a louder voice, not for a new tier of government. "If others go federalist, Conservative Britain will not."

Turning to education, Mr Major said it remained top of his agenda. He announced the doubling of the assisted places scheme, which currently helps 37,000 children, and an aim of enabling all schools to become grant- maintained. The message from Labour, he said, was "no choice for the poor".

Mr Major told the story of a Victoria Cross holder without a ticket for the VJ Day celebrations, ending with the announcement that the pounds 100 annuity paid to holders of the VC and George Cross is to be uprated to pounds 1,300 - "to show that this country has not forgotten the bravest of the brave".

He recommitted himself to a permanent peace in Northern Ireland and to the union with Scotland. "It is my duty as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to warn of the effect of Labour's plans for the constitution. The constitution is the core, the heart and the guts of the way of life in the United Kingdom ... Labour are proposing changes to our constitution for their own party political advantage."

Concluding with a forceful passage on crime, he promised 5,000 more police officers on the beat, 10,000 more closed-circuit TV cameras in town centres, a national squad to fight organised crime, and a Bill to enable MI5 to support the police.

In an age when children were more likely to be killed by a drug dealer than by an enemy missile, it was absurd that the law restricted MI5 to combating espionage and terrorism, he said.

Trying to reclaim the law-and-order initiative from the Labour Party, he said the Government was going to hit crime harder and harder and stand up for people in Britain's inner cities.

Bringing the audience to its feet, Mr Major said the Tories were building the greatest success for the nation in a lifetime. "We will not surrender them to a lightweight alternative."