Major puts schools at centre of campaign

Preparing for battle: More selection in education and right to charge for late payment are picked as key issues
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The Independent Online
John Major will today claim that the issue of selection in schools is a key difference between the Conservatives and Labour in the run-up to the next election, as he contrasts his commitment to extend selection in schools with Labour's opposition to it.

In a speech on the theme of "opportunity", he will again seek to portray the Tories as the party of parental choice, and condemn Labour's plans to abolish the assisted-places scheme, which subsidises places at private schools.

He is expected to claim that greater diversity in schools will be one of the Government's great legacies, and to say: "We are currently considering how to increase that rich variety with more selective schools."

Mr Major's Downing Street policy unit believes a revival of the grammar- school tradition is a vote-winner, but Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, opposes a return to the 11-plus.

Mr Major is also expected attack Labour's "hypocrisy", citing health spokeswoman Harriet Harman's decision to send her son to a selective grammar school.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, yesterday moved to scotch Westminster rumours that he was prepared to drop her from the Shadow Cabinet if she lost her place in the annual election among Labour MPs, who are still furious with her.

On the eve of a move to bring forward the Shadow Cabinet elections, Mr Blair let it be known that he is standing by Ms Harman. "Recent articles in the Tory press saying he has decided to ditch her are wholly inaccurate," said one source.

Mr Major's speech, to the Social Market Foundation in London, will follow a special meeting of the Cabinet this morning, which he has summoned to thrash out Tory plans for a spring offensive against Labour.

The Cabinet will be told that a mini spending boom, financed by some of the pounds 20bn in maturing Tessa savings accounts, is part of the Government's strategy for reviving the "feel good factor". The Treasury estimates that 2.5 million accounts, yielding pounds 15 bn, will mature in the first quarter of this year.