Blair mocks Major claim to middle ground

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The Independent Online
THE BATTLE for the political middle ground broke out in earnest yesterday when Tony Blair attacked the Prime Minister's claim to represent mainstream voters.

The Labour leader's onslaught was part of a co-ordinated Opposition assault - also involving shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown and shadow Health Secretary David Blunkett - following John Major's call for consolidation on social policy at the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth last week.

Mr Blair attacked Mr Major's pitch for the middle ground of politics which, he said, was the 'speech of a leader embarrassed by his party's record and ashamed to take responsibility for it'.

In an article in today's News of the World, Mr Blair said the Prime Minister's move to the centre ground was 'not believable', adding: 'These are the people who have been in charge for 15 years. The idea of them as protectors of the National Health Service is laughable.'

Mr Blair's allies believe that Mr Major has made a tactical error by drawing attention to areas of social policy, such as health, in which Labour is stronger.

Mr Blair said: 'The party that has done so much to tear apart the bonds that tie communities together cannot suddenly claim to be the party of community.'

Meanwhile, Mr Brown, speaking in Edinburgh, said: 'A government that is privatising the Post Office and the railways, that pursues isolationism in Europe, and has presided over 15 years of social disintegration, can never be credible as the government of the middle ground, the champions of education and social cohesion, or even the defenders of the health service.

'Mr Major says he wants to abandon Thatcherism. Yet what the Conservatives cheered in Bournemouth were not the policies of the centre but the policies of the hard right.'

His views were echoed by Mr Blunkett, who told an audience in Cambridge: 'Whatever John Major may say, the Tories have veered further to the right this week than at any time since Mrs Thatcher left office.'

In his conference speech on Friday, Mr Major endorsed the NHS and claimed that Labour had come on to 'our ground'.

This week Mr Blair is set for a wide-ranging reconstruction of the Shadow Cabinet. MPs expect him to take the opportunity promote women and reshuffle some of the top-level portfolios.

Mo Mowlam, shadow Heritage Secretary, is being tipped to take over at Employment where her combative style could be used to advantage against Michael Portillo, and Harriet Harman could be given the Education post.

Rumours around Westminster suggest that Robin Cook, one of Labour's most devastating parliamentary performers, could be promoted from Trade and Industry to shadow Foreign Secretary to take on Douglas Hurd.

Mr Blair's former position as shadow Home Secretary could go to Margaret Beckett, as consolation for the loss of the deputy leadership, or to Jack Straw, who ran the Labour leader's election campaign.

As MPs return to Westminster tomorrow, after their three-month summer break, there are suggestions that the Government may attempt to starve Mr Blair of 'the oxygen of parliamentary publicity' by arranging Commons business to allow longer than average recesses in the run-up to Christmas.

'It looks as if the business managers want to prevent Blair from getting too much exposure at Prime Minister's Questions,' said one veteran Conservative MP.

Tory right-wingers yesterday conceded that the Prime Minister's position was more secure after his 'fireside chat' speech to the party conference, but warned that he could be in fresh trouble if the Government failed to recover in the opinion polls.