Blair attacks Howard as 'high priest of Thatcherism'

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Tony Blair launched a full-frontal personal assault on Michael Howard yesterday as he sought to shrug off speculation about how long he intends to remain as Prime Minister.

Unveiling Labour's campaign for the local authority elections on 10 June, Mr Blair said: "People who are running the Conservative Party today were the arch high priests of all those aspects of Thatcherism that people disliked most and voted to get rid of in 1997."

He added: "The last thing we need, with the economy strong and record investment in our public services, paying off and turning round public services, is a return to the failed policies of the past - a return to the 1980s with under-investment in public services and high unemployment."

Echoing Margaret Thatcher's pledge as she entered Downing Street 25 years ago yesterday, he declared that "in each of the communities of this country, where there has been despair, we put hope."

His attack on Mr Howard came on the day that a YouGov poll showed the Tory leader running neck-and-neck with Mr Blair on who would make the best Prime Minister.

At a press conference held in Leeds, Mr Blair was dogged by questions about his own future. He said that he was not trying to match Margaret Thatcher's 11 years in No 10, but would not be drawn on whether he would serve a full third term if he wins the next general election. He said he had answered that question "a thousand times before".

He added: "I do not stand here today wanting to emulate Margaret Thatcher. I stand here proud of what we've achieved as a Labour government and I want us to carry on achieving - to carry on taking the country forward, not backwards."

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who branded Mr Howard the "son of Thatcher," said: "Tony will go on and on and on. And I'll go on and on and on." Pressed on how long Mr Blair would carry on as Prime Minister, Mr Prescott said: "He is going to stay there until he makes the decision. All prime ministers presumably come to saying there is an end some time, but that is a matter for him. But make no mistake about this - this man has got the full support of the Cabinet."

But Lord Healey, a former Labour chancellor, told BBC Radio 4 that it would be a "good thing" if Mr Blair stood down in favour of Gordon Brown before the next general election.

Mr Brown, who joined Mr Blair at the launch of the Labour campaign, contrasted the Tories' economic record with Labour's since 1997. "They are a recession-prone party. Michael Howard and his Shadow Cabinet are a recession waiting to happen," he said.

The Chancellor also turned his guns on Blairites who have accused him of opposing the inclusion of radical reforms in Labour's general election manifesto, as The Independent reported on Monday.

Mr Brown, who is furious at being portrayed as an opponent of reform, responded in an article The Guardian, saying: "We must be radical in our policy proposals." In a sideswipe at the Blairites, he added: "Reform must be based on vision and values. And it must be thought through." The Brown camp claims that Blairites failed to "think through" changes such as foundation hospitals.

Labour made clear it would fight the local elections mainly on national issues in a campaign that will be seen as a dry run for the general election.