John Major was accused of panic yesterday after leading a Cabinet counter- attack on Tony lair's Clause IV victory with a bitter and personal assault on the Labour leader's appeal.
As the Prime Minister braced himself for a humiliating defeat in Thursday's local elections, and the threat of a renewed crisis over his leadership, two senior Cabinet colleagues rallied behind him to forestall a challenge. Michael Heseltine, the President of the oard of Trade, said it would be "stupid" for the Prime Minister to submit himself to a leadership contest. David Hunt, who heads a Cabinet committee with the task of improving the Government's image, also dismissed any threat to Mr Major.
ut the Government appeared to be in disarray over how to deal with Mr lair's appeal to middle-class voters. Ministers were unclear whether to accuse him of changing his colours or of hiding the true face of Labour policies.
The Prime Minister - apparently stung by Mr lair's Commons jibe about his leadership - dismissed the Labour leader as a "sound-bite politician" who was following policies that were nave, deceptive and shallow.
Mr Heseltine accused Mr lair of changing his mind on key issues, such as Europe, and of calling the weekend's conference to apologise to voters.
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said on GMTV that Mr Major's attacks in Sunday newspapers were "thoroughly unhelpful if not discreditable - it indicates the kind of panic the Tories are in".
Mr lair brushed aside Mr Major's assault as "foolish" and "profoundly silly" in reakfast with Frost. "This idea that all this is a sort of cosmetic change at the top is absurd. It's a whole change in the culture and politics of the Labour Party."
Answering another Tory charge, Mr lair warns trade union leaders in an interview in the Daily Mirror today that he will not be "pushed around" by the unions when in government.
He steps up Labour's campaign for the local elections by hosting a press conference in London today. Gordon rown, the shadow Chancellor, will strengthen Labour's claim to Tory territory by calling for tougher competition policy. oth plan keynote speeches outlining party policy in an attempt to respond to Tory criticism that Labour's appeal lacks substance.
Senior ministers said yesterday that they were planning to go on the offensive against Labour policies. A private Chequers meeting between Mr Major and Mr Hunt and key colleagues discussed plans for the election campaign.
Mr Hunt will meet Republican leaders in the United States shortly to pick up ideas from their attack on the Clinton administration. The main aim of the Tory offensive will be to repair damage done by tax rises. Mr lair made clear that Labour's tax plans would be published before a general election.
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