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Major names policy chief

John Major yesterday announced the surprise choice of Norman Blackwell, an intellectually high-flying management consultant, as the head of his policy unit in succession to Sarah Hogg.

After what some Whitehall insiders say has been a difficult trawl for a suitable candidate, the Prime Minister has picked a 42-year-old father of five to co-ordinate the quest for new policies to form the basis of the Tories' fifth election campaign since 1979.

The scale of the task facing Mr Blackwell, a partner of McKinsey and Company, is underlined today by a Mori poll in The Times which shows the Government as more unpopular than any in polling history. It shows Labour's lead as having climbed to 39 points,with the party at 61 per cent, the Tories at 22 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 13 per cent. Only 8 per cent of electors - and only 29 per cent of Tory supporters - are satisfied with the Government's performance.

If Mr Blackwell follows Mrs Hogg's example he will also be responsible for day-to-day "banging of heads'' in Whitehall to ensure that departmental policies follow the Prime Minister's wishes.

Mr Blackwell has an outstanding academic record, with a PhD in finance and economics, and he is said to have impressed Baroness Thatcher when he was a member of her policy unit in 1986 and 1987.

Some Tory sources, while praising Mr Blackwell's intellect and ability as a problem-solver, doubted whether he was enough of a "political thug'' to dominate the Whitehall jungle or ruthlessly exploit every Labour weakness in the run-up to the election. Although he was chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association and has served as a local party ward chairman, his career experience is mainly managerial. He will be paid as a Second Permanent Secretary with a salary of £87,435.

Downing Street acknowledged that other potential candidates had been considered, but that Mr Blackwell emerged as the leading contender.