Major contests centre ground with Labour

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JOHN MAJOR will tomorrow challenge the claim by Tony Blair, the Labour leader, to the centre ground of British politics.

The Prime Minister will use a speech to the European Policy Forum in London to stake the Tory claim to core issues such as law and order, education and low taxation.

It will mark the start of the offensive against Mr Blair's leadership. Mr Blair stole a further march on the centre ground at the weekend when he underlined his belief in 'the family' in society.

Mr Major's speech, yesterday described by Downing Street as 'significant', follows an argument within the Tory party over how to counter the appeal of the Blair leadership.

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, and other key members of the Cabinet favoured attacking Mr Blair as a pale copy of the Tory party. This is called 'the Coke option' by researchers who say the Tories represent 'the real thing'.

Mr Major and the Tory high command have rejected that strategy. Instead, they intend to present Mr Blair's leadership as a new face at the head of a party that is largely unchanged in its fundamental beliefs.

'The Coke option concedes too much to Labour; it concedes they have changed policy, when they haven't,' one senior Tory policy adviser said.

Following the agreed strategy, Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, today will attack Mr Blair for trying to turn the clock back on the Tories' education changes, when Labour publishes a policy document on education proposing the abolition of grant-maintained schools.

Mrs Shephard strongly supports the Prime Minister's strategy of focusing on education, although she may use it to lever more money out of the Treasury in the public expenditure review.

By emphasising the key policy areas on which the Tories traditionally have been strong, Mr Major will be seen to be appealing to the right wing of his party. But he risks raising issues on which Labour has overtaken the Tories, and on which Tory credibility has been damaged.

Tory strategists insist that the right-wing agenda is the centre- ground on which the next general election will be won or lost. Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, said at the weekend the Tory campaign for a fifth term would be: 'Do you think you can trust Labour? Are you prepared to let Labour ruin all we have done?'

Mr Heseltine said the answer would be a resounding 'no'. But the poll support for Mr Blair suggests Mr Major has to a lot to do to convince the electorate.