Major to warn Labour will tear-up Britain

Scottish Tories conference: Prime Minister targets devolution plans as key election issue
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The Independent Online
John Major is planning to give Conservatives a rallying call to preserve the Union today with a warning that Labour's plans for a Scottish Parliament threaten to "tear apart" Britain.

The Prime Minister's campaigning speech to the Scottish Conservative Party conference in Aberdeen will make constitutional commitment to Scotland a cornerstone of the Tory General Election campaign. Mr Major is expected to claim Labour's devolution plans will endanger the fabric of Britain, and - coupled with Labour's pro-European stance - damage Britain at home and abroad.

The Prime Minister will seek to draw the line under the Tory losses in the local elections, and turn the Conservative fire on Labour over tax, which was looking increasingly vital for the Tories after Kenneth Clarke damped down hopes of a pre-election tax giveaway in the next Budget. The Chancellor told the conference: "Let me make one thing clear on tax. Restoring our reputation for competence and regaining the trust of the British people does not involve buying votes through tax cuts that will not last. I have too high a regard for the British people to try and bribe them with tax cuts we can't afford."

Mr Clarke refused to rule out tax cuts, but a rise in borrowing and a pounds 6bn gap in expected VAT receipts has made his room for manoeuvre much smaller.

Instead, Mr Major is planning to focus his conference attack on the threat of Labour tax rises, including the "Tartan tax" for the Scottish Parliament, and the "teenage tax", equivalent to pounds 560 a year, if the Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, scraps child benefit for 16- 18-year-olds as part of Labour's welfare reforms.

He will hold out the prospect of the return of the "feelgood factor" with low inflation and low interest rates being put at risk by a Labour Government.

In a foretaste of the Tory election strategy, Mr Major will tell wavering supporters Labour would "throw it all away". That message will be seen as an attempt to neutralise the power of Labour's appeal that it is "time for a change".

The commitment to the Union was reinforced by Cabinet ministers at the Scottish conference, led by Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman. Claiming the Conservatives would be the only party with candidates wedded to maintaining the Union, Dr Mawhinney said: "We are a Unionist party by conviction."

However, Sir David Steel, the former Liberal Democrat leader, last night warned Mr Major he was making a fatal mistake in opposing more devolved powers for Scotland. "It is they who are risking the Union. Without a Scottish Parliament, more people out of frustration may opt for separation," Sir David warned.