Blair accused of scare tactics on Tory NHS plans

Negative Labour campaign will try to persuade traditional supporters to turn out by talking up the Conservatives' 'extremism'
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Tony Blair claimed yesterday that the Tories would force National Health Service patients to be treated in the private sector as he urged Labour supporters not to hand William Hague a morale-boosting victory in next month's local authority elections.

The Prime Minister was accused of "scare tactics" and "negative campaigning" by the Tories after he appealed to Labour supporters not to abstain in the 4 May polls in 152 English councils.

Ministers fear that traditional Labour voters will stay at home - because they are disenchanted with the Government and do not see the Tories as a threat because they trail Labour so badly in the opinion polls. Yesterday the Cabinet approved the strategy for a local election campaign aimed at highlighting the threat from Mr Hague's policies.

Mr Blair, who is frustrated that the Tory programme is not being put under the media spotlight, told colleagues: "If we had done what they are doing in opposition, we would have been crucified."

The local election campaign will mark the start of a "long war" to the general election expected a year later. Labour's high-profile effort will contrast with its low-key campaign in last year's European Parliament elections, which allowed the Tories to win by mobilising their core vote.

Launching Labour's campaign in Milton Keynes, Mr Blair played up the threat of a Tory revival and branded the Opposition as "more extreme than ever". He accused the Tories of "relying on apathy" in the local poll and "trying to stir up cynicism".

The Prime Minister attacked the "patients' guarantee" under which a Tory government would relieve the pressure on the NHS by having some operations carried out by the private sector.

Mr Blair claimed patients would be forced to pay thousands of pounds for treatment and leave pensioners facing a bill of up to £87 a week for private medical insurance - "a Tory tax on the old", he said.

Last night the Tories accused Mr Blair of "lies" and trying to frighten vulnerable people. Mr Hague attacked Labour's "wild allegations" and said: "It is Tony Blair and his mismanagement of the health service who is forcing some people to have private operations due to delays and long waiting lists."

The Labour manifesto was entitled "A lot done. A lot to do" in an attempt to inject a note of humility about the Government's record.

Mr Blair conceded that: too many people still found their daily lives a struggle; the NHS needed to ensure patients got a better service; secondary schools needed major improvement; too many children were growing up in poverty; and too many pensioners needed more help.

"There's a bit of most of us that wants transformation overnight," Mr Blair said. "But there is also the realisation that putting right 18 years of neglect takes time." Despite putting health at the forefront of Labour's campaign, Mr Blair refused to answer questions on allegations that health care was being rationed.

He also declined to comment on Stephen Byers' handling of the Rover crisis and the criticism of last month's Budget by the International Monetary Fund. Mr Blair is bracing himself for a bloody nose in the local elections because Labour did well when the same seats were last fought in 1996. All the parties are playing the "expectations game" - downplaying their own prospects and setting success targets for their rivals.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said the Tories will need to gain 700 seats just to recover to the position in which they stood before the 1996 local elections. But Mr Hague has set a target of just 170 gains for his party.

Labour claimed the Tories were privately expecting to gain 500 seats and cited a Tory leaflet trumpeting the party's performance in recent council by-elections. It says the Tories have won 36 per cent of the votes cast and Labour 30 per cent.

But the Tories accused Labour of "twisting the facts" because more than half the by-elections took place in areas where there will be no elections on 4 May.

Mr Hague portrayed the Tories as the party to "bring common sense" to England's town halls. His five-point plan promises: better school standards; better services and lower council taxes; no congestion charges for driving into town and city centres; to save countryside and more open decision-making by councils.

The Liberal Democrats, who have already won control of the councils in the former Labour strongholds of Sheffield and Liverpool, are confident of exploiting discontent with the Government by making further inroads into the Labour heartlands.

"We have been successful in local government because we stand for good quality services, listening and responsive government and financial management and value for money," said Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader.