Major seeks to win over anti-Ashdown 'Liberals'

Struggle for power: Tories appeal to centre as Labour braces for poll
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The Independent Online

Political Editor

John Major yesterday launched an appeal to Liberal Democrats to switch to Conservatism if they were disaffected by Paddy Ashdown's decision to tilt his party towards a post-election deal with Labour.

In his first response to Mr Ashdown's decision to abandon "equidistance" between the two main parties, the Prime Minister suggested that Tories and dissident Liberal Democrats could make common cause against "the divisive, illiberal force of socialism and state control".

Mr Major went out of his way in his speech to the Welsh Tory conference at Llangollen to appeal to the significant minority of Liberal Democrats he believes are opposed to Mr Ashdown's decision. He praised "the ancient Liberal virtues of individual liberty, of limiting the state and of ever wider opportunity".

Declaring that "those Liberals" who still support such ideals "are welcome to join us", Mr Major added: "Only the Conservative Party now stands for these values. And we are open to anyone who shares them."

Mr Major was scathing about Mr Ashdown, who he said would "no doubt be happy to be minister of morris dancing" in a Tony Blair-led cabinet. But he added that Mr Ashdown's announcement of "the death of Liberalism as an independent political force is of some significance".

He declared: "Whatever our quarrels with the Liberals, we should acknowledge that in parts of Wales they have fought socialism as vigorously as us. So I suspect there will be some Liberals who cannot stomach being a wholly- owned subsidiary of the Labour Party."

A large part of Mr Major's speech, however, was devoted to pressing the Tories' newly sharpened goal of protecting the "sovereignty of Britain" against what he said were the designs Labour had upon it with its objective of a federal European "superstate" and its plans for Scottish and Welsh devolution.

Mr Major said the prospect of the UK's break up was of a "different dimension" to other issues separating the parties. He said Labour had "cooked up" the idea of a Welsh Assembly - and its variable plans for English regional assemblies - to justify keeping Labour's over-representation of Scotland at Westminster after the creation of a Scottish parliament.

He said: "The people of Wales would have foisted upon them a whole new layer of bureaucracy and a whole new class of politician just so that Labour can protect their narrow party political interest in Scotland."

Labour's plans for a Welsh assembly were "an insult to Wales", he declared, adding: "They carry no conviction, they are the left-overs of the plans for Scotland."

His speech showed little sign of Tory anxiety over the party's slump - underlined by a Gallup poll in yesterday's Daily Telegraph giving Labour a 39.5 per cent lead.

Mr Major told BBC Radio Wales before his speech: "I believe that when it comes to a general election, when there is a real choice to be made about the future of the country and its direction, these mid-term fluctuations will even out."