The Opposition pledged to lock up many more teenage offenders by providing 1,000 places in 10 secure training centres. But in a softening of the last Tory government's hard line, young criminals would be released if they met targets on education and behaviour. To give them a fresh start, their slate of convictions would be "wiped clean" if they did not commit a serious offence for three years after their release.
"It's time for some tough love," said a document approved by the Shadow Cabinet, in an echo of President Clinton's policies to crack down on crime.
"We need a mixture of carrot and stick" said Ann Widdecombe, the Shadow Home Secretary. She promised that persistent offenders would be taken out of their communities but would be given a real incentive to rehabilitate themselves. Under her "one-stop justice" system, sentenced young offenders would not be taken to court for other crimes, to stop frequent appearances disrupting their training. This means they could escape punishment for some non serious offences if they mended their ways.
A "mid-term manifesto" also covering tax, education and health will be published at next month's Tory conference in Blackpool, after which working groups will finalise the election manifesto to ensure the Tories are ready for a snap poll next year.
Mr Hague said the common thread would be policies to "help people who work hard, save hard, want a better future for their kids and to be independent of the state".
The Tories admit they need to launch a new offensive to narrow Labour's commanding opinion poll lead, by unveiling their own policies and stepping up their attacks on the government's record. "We cannot sit back and wait for the government to make a mess of things because it inherited such a strong economy from us," said one Tory source.
Mr Hague told the two-day strategy session in Buckinghamshire the challenge was to extend to other policy areas the success of the Tories Euro election campaign in June.
The meeting was given heart by John Curtice, the elections expert, who told it there was polling evidence that New Labour was losing its shine as voters became impatient for it to deliver its promises to improve public services. Writing in The Independent today Dr Curtice says the Tories "need to persuade voters they have put the past behind them, to persuade them that the present is indeed not so good at all."
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