Tories clear decks for May poll

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The Independent Online
John Major will clear the decks for a 1 May election today with a meeting of senior Cabinet ministers in Downing Street to approve the Conservative election manifesto.

The Prime Minister has ordered the Government's business managers to ensure that its four main law-and-order bills get Royal Assent early next month to avoid the need for horse-trading with Tony Blair in the run-up to polling day.

And to put Labour on the defensive on education, the Government is planning to force a re-run in the Commons of the vote on the Education Bill to give parents the power to expand grant-maintained schools, which it lost by one vote when a whip added up incorrectly.

Ministerial leave has been cancelled for a full-scale Commons vote tonight by Labour over the state of the National Health Service, forcing Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, to cut to a few hours a visit to Hong Kong before flying to Brunei on Wednesday on an arms-trade mission.

To head off any attempt to bring the Government down before 1 May, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is expected to announce in the next fortnight new powers for the Northern Ireland grand committee, to meet in Belfast before the election, a move which the Ulster Unionists have been demanding.

Pledges in the manifesto, drafted by David Willetts, chairman of the Tory research department, will include a commitment to send in "hit squads" to take over council housing estates where there is evidence that councils are failing in their duty. Some controversial plans, including the privatisation of Channel 4, have been put off. The privatisation of the London Underground is expected to be announced before the election, ready for action if the Tories are re-elected. A Ministry of Agriculture consultation paper on options for reducing Britain's anti-rabies measures for pets has been put off until after the election.

It is likely that more meetings will be needed before the manifesto is approved, but those close to Mr Major say he has set his mind on 1 May. The launchpad could be the Conservative central council in Bath on 14 March, and the dissolution of the Commons around 7 April.

Ministers at today's meeting, who will include Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, will be asked to endorse plans for expanding nationally the Workstart scheme, on similar lines to the United States Workfare system, which would require the unemployed to work for their welfare benefits.

Today also marks the last date for the Prime Minister to call a snap election on 20 March, but the message from the Conservative rally in Birmingham was that the Tories' hope of winning now rests on delay, to give more time for economic recovery to translate into votes.

Tony Blair is making an unprecedented second visit to the by-election campaign in South Wirral today, and Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, gave a clear hint that the Tories expect defeat in Thursday's poll. "There is a well-established by-election phenomenon and I'm not going to pretend that that doesn't show signs of happening in the Wirral as elsewhere," he said.

Labour has abandoned any plans of forcing a no- confidence vote to demand an election after the by-election result. "There is no point, unless we can guarantee to get the Ulster Unionists voting with us," said a Labour source.

The Tory high command returned from the Birmingham rally encouraged by improved morale, to focus on closing the gap with Labour.

Tomorrow they were planning to return to the attack on Labour over the economy, but that was undermined yesterday by Sir Edward Heath, the former Conservative prime minister, who infuriated Tory MPs by endorsing Labour's support for the European social chapter, the minimum wage, and the Scottish parliament.

Mr Major has made clear that plans to cut taxes will feature in the election campaign. In an article in today's Financial Times he writes: "If we do not cut taxes, the normal process of fiscal drag means the tax- burden tends to rise over time. Our objective is to match low spending with low taxes in a permanently low-tax economy."

Heath condemned, page 4

Leading article, page 14

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