The Prime Minister provoked howls of indignation from Opposition leaders, who said Mr Major had a cheek to claim the moral high ground after the Tory sex and financial scandals and the arms-to-Iraq affair. It was a high risk venture which could backfire on the Tories like the "back to basics" theme, but senior Tory sources said Mr Major had been irritated into the attack by the Labour leader's stand on morality. "He doesn't believe Labour has any right to claim that it is more moral than the Conservatives," said a source.
Mr Major said: "I can hear the cries of `uncaring Conservatives' already forming on the lips of our opponents. Cut taxes? Just an electoral bribe, they say. End capital taxation? Just a ramp for the well to do. But these cries just blur the argument. They are nonsense.
"We should not be put off by them. They are the baggage of a welfare state mentality that distrusts personal choice and resents personal ownership.
"I rejected the muddled thinking that says a smaller state must be uncaring. And I reject the thinking that equates big government with benevolent government."
His defence for the morality of tax cuts underlined the anxiety of ministers that a tax cutting Budget may be treated sceptically by the voters, after the tax increases which followed the 1992 general election.
Alex Carlile, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said: "The Prime Minister has a distorted view of what is moral and what is immoral."
Mr Blair said his party would take the Tories "head on" in a debate about political morality. The Labour leader also dared Mr Major to act upon his hints in a radio interview earlier that he might chance a live television clash with the Labour leader in the election campaign.
John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader - in a speech mentioning the word "socialist" five times - said: "Perhaps the next poster will be John Major sitting on a cloud with a harp and a halo over his head with the slogan - `go to work on a harp'."
The speech was intended to herald the publication today of the White Paper on the citizen's charter, but Mr Major decided to use it to counter the appeal of Mr Blair with his brand of Christian socialism. The Tory source said: "Labour keep using the word `moral' as if they had some sort of moral superiority. We think the opposite is true."
The Prime Minister reaffirmed that the Government would be seeking to slash public expenditure below 40 per cent of national income. "`Moral' is a word I usually prefer to leave to the Church but it is apt for what I intend to say," Mr Major said. The case for smaller government was as much a moral case as an economic one. "For example, is it moral to take from individuals the right to make personal decisions? I think not. Is it moral to impose obligations on employers like the Social Chapter and the minimum wage that will cost jobs and prevent those without jobs from getting them? Again, I think not."
The shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, said people would be "astonished at the double standards of a Prime Minister who calls for the moral case for low tax yet was responsible for 22 tax rises."
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