In the first blow of the new Tory strategy for the election, the Prime Minister sought to portray Labour - without mentioning Tony Blair's name - as a party of privileged people who seek to deny privileges to others.
Central to his offensive, which was endorsed by a special Cabinet meeting without civil servants yesterday, was a pledge to extend selection in schools.
Tory strategists intend to contrast Mr Major, a "grammar school boy" who lived in a small flat in Brixton, south London, with Mr Blair, who was educated at private schools and sends his son out of the London borough of Islington to a grant-maintained school.
In a speech to the Social Market Foundation in London, Mr Major returned to themes that he believes won him the last election, identifying with people who want to get on in life. "I don't view people without position or money from some lofty pedestal. I was one of them. I remember their hopes and the obstacles in their way."
The Government's plans to extend selective education are, in fact, rather limited - but the Prime Minister clearly hopes to maximise the ideological difference between the parties. He highlighted plans to increase the proportion of children in comprehensives who can be selected on academic ability without seeking government approval for a change of school status.
Mr Blair dismissed Mr Major's speech in advance, saying he did not believe the Government would win votes by "rushing into selection, by [in effect] saying we want to go back to the 11-plus". He told BBC Radio: "It's extraordinary that the Prime Minister's only real new idea is greater subsidy through the Assisted Places Scheme for private education."
But Mr Major accused Labour of hypocrisy: "Some people would like to abolish selective schools and the Assisted Places Scheme. That's like saying `we don't want you getting above yourself'. It's towering humbug. I do want children to get above themselves," he said.
He widened the attack on Labour to jobs and taxes. Describing the unemployed as "a nation in their own right", he pointed out that the EU's 18 million unemployed exceeded the combined populations of Sweden, Denmark and Ireland.
He accepted that those who advocated a minimum wage and signing the European Social Chapter "sincerely" want to create jobs. "But wanting isn't doing. It's a sort of wrongheaded piety. It's a mistake the young people of Britain cannot afford," he said.
He claimed the Government was back to a "tax-cutting agenda", and that Labour had not lost its old instincts. Labour said to people who want to take home more of what they earn: "We'll save you the trouble. We'll spend the money for you."
Chris Smith, Labour's social security spokesman, hit back in the Commons by highlighting the Department of Social Security's annual report revealing the rising cost to the taxpayer of welfare benefits. The Government's claim to be able to cut taxes would be unconvincing until it tackled the "massive cost to the taxpayer of the dependency culture the Conservatives have created", he said.
The report shows that spending on benefits has risen by 32 per cent - taking inflation into account - since 1991.Reuse content