With opinion polls showing Labour drawing still further ahead, the Prime Minister is moving quickly to set in motion the necessary machinery to name polling day.
Conservative MPs have been ordered to be in the Commons tomorrow, arousing intense speculation at Westminster that Mr Major is about to ask the Queen for prorogation of Parliament so that the campaign can begin officially straight after the Easter Bank Holiday at the end of this month.
Downing Street and Tory Central Office sources refused to confirm or deny reports circulating last night that the Cabinet will meet tomorrow to endorse the 1 May announcement.
But the nature of the non- denials, together with confirmation that party chairman Dr Brian Mawhinney will today announce that John Major is willing to take part in a series of head-to-head televised debates with Mr Blair convinced many MPs that they will be put on the starting block in the next 48 hours.
The Prime Minister has a meeting with the Queen scheduled for Tuesday, but this could be brought forward to tomorrow if he wishes to ask for Parliament to be dissolved on or about 3 April. This timetable would allow government business managers to complete as many outstanding legislative measures - like the Crime Bill - as possible.
Sources said Mr Major intends to open a personal offensive to stay in Number 10 immediately, with a barrage of media appearances and a "meet the people tour" designed to build on the surprisingly positive reception he received in the streets of Bath yesterday following his keynote speech to the Conservative Central Council.
The Prime Minister painted a nightmare vision of Britain under Tony Blair. He claimed that a Labour government would be besieged by trade union pay demands, would cost jobs and cause turbulence on the currency markets.
Addressing 2,000 constituency workers, he promised to unveil manifesto policies "very shortly". His aggressive rhetoric intensified speculation that a six-week general election campaign will start this week - beginning with a three-week "phoney war" before MPs are actually sent back to their constituencies.
Striking a One Nation, centre ground pose, the Prime Minister highlighted the Conservative party's commitment to education and to health. He added: "A free National Health service is a principle we must never change". He attacked Labour's record over education, demanding to know what Tony Blair had done about deplorable Labour councils. "Nothing", he added, "but turn the car key and drive away to another borough and another school."
Mr Major invoked his humble social origins. He said many hard-up people are instinctive supporters, adding: "Many of them look to us, many of them are Conservatives. I know. I come from them. I care for them. And I long to see them too, having their fair share of the good things of life."
Dr Mawhinney will today announce that the Prime Minister is ready for a presidential-style contest - but only on Tory terms. Mr Major does not want a live audience to watch the "political gladiators", nor does he want the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown to participate.
The Liberal Democrats have threatened to invoke the Broadcasting Act and take out an injunction against the broadcasters unless they are given equal treatment, as the law requires during general election campaigns.
As the political jousting gets more heated, an NOP opinion poll for today's Sunday Times puts Labour 25 points ahead of the Tories. Labour is on 52 per cent, up three on last month.Reuse content