The man who thinks he can win

Very well, then: alone. John Major defiant yesterday. Within hours, the `Sun' had deserted him
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The Independent Online
John Major yesterday opened the 1 May election campaign with an appeal to voters to accept that if it was time for a change, "we are the change". That plea was later reinforced by a warning that the election was no game.

But Tony Blair said: "The Tories keep saying to people that this is the best that Britain can be. What I say to people is that Britain can be better than this."

The Labour leader's appeal was last night backed by the latest in a long line of heavyweight endorsements, with a front-page Sun headline saying: "The Sun backs Blair. Give change a chance."

For the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown welcomed the chance for voters to say what they thought of the Government's "broken promises, incompetence and divisions".

The start of the six-week election campaign was at long last triggered by the Prime Minister with an impromptu Cabinet, a visit to the Palace, and a return to Downing Street, where he announced the election timetable.

Parliament will sit for the rest of this week, clearing an agreed programme of residual legislation before rising on Friday. It will not meet again before being formally dissolved, by proclamation, on 8 April.

Before going out on to the hustings, taking his soap-box from the last election on a visit to Luton - a town with two marginal Tory seats, where he received a rowdy reception from demonstrating students - Mr Major said the Government had, since 1979, given the country "a revolution in choice".

He told reporters in Downing Street that in spite of the "bruises and difficulties" he was proud of his party's 18-year record, before turning to address his biggest weak spot - the argument that it is time for a change.

"If people are looking for change," Mr Major said, "we are the change, and we'll carry forward what we've been doing for the last 18 years."

He said: "I believe this election is winnable. Not only do I think it's winnable, but I think that we are going to win this election."

Later, in a written statement, Mr Major added: "A general election is not some far-away spectator sport - or a TV talk-show. It will affect life behind every front door in the land." What was at stake, he warned, were issues "that touch the cold hard realities of 56 million daily lives".

Mr Blair told Sky News that the voters would remember the Tory promises of 1992, when Mr Major promised tax cuts, and then raised taxes; his promise not to extend VAT to fuel, before doing so; and his promise to bring crime under control, with violent crime still rising.

Labour would make a difference on schools, the health service, crime and jobs. "We aren't just going to have the rewards going to an elite few at the top," he said.

But Mr Blair will be given a morale boost by the support of the Sun, which claimed after the last election: "It was the Sun wot won it" for Mr Major.

Undoubtedly acting under the direct orders of Rupert Murdoch, his hands- on proprietor, the Sun's editor, Stuart Higgins, told Channel 4 News last night that Mr Blair was "a dynamic, exciting, energetic new leader for this country", while the Tories were "tired out and incapable of governing ... paralysed by their divisions, and it's time for a change". Clearly hurt, Tory sources said last night that the decision was "peculiar", given the paper's background of Euro-scepticism.

In a London speech, the Liberal Democrat leader said: "I am determined that, every day of this campaign, we focus on how to make Britain the world's number-one learning society in the next century."

But the Prime Minister's first public acceptance of Labour's challenge for a televised leadership debate was getting bogged down in the detailed conditions of Mr Major's terms of engagement.

He said at Downing Street: "I very much wish to meet Mr Blair in debate." But he then delivered a series of qualifications that left Labour, the Liberal Democrats and other minority parties significantly dissatisfied.

Explaining why he did not think that he should have to face both Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown, the Conservative leader said: "After the election, either Mr Blair or I will be Prime Minister. I have some sympathy for Mr Ashdown's position.

"I am sure the broadcasters might find some way to involve him, but I think the principal debate will be between the leader of the Labour Party and myself."

A senior Labour source said it was "silly" of broadcasters to respond to that by trying to find ways to accommodate Mr Major's demand for the exclusion of Mr Ashdown.

The source said the public should not be shut out of the debate; a selected audience should be given the opportunity to put questions to the party leaders. As for the Tory preference for one anchorman to chair the debate, Labour said they would prefer a number of prominent media pundits to be given the chance of grilling the leaders, and putting them and their policies under the microscope.

n The latest Gallup poll for today's Daily Telegraph showed an increased Labour lead of 28 percentage points, putting them on 56.5 per cent, compared with 28.5 per cent for the Tories, and 9 per cent for the Liberal Democrats - their lowest Gallup rating since the summer of 1990.