Blair limits foreign trips to present 'Britain first' image

Tony Blair will limit his foreign trips until after the May general election in an attempt to repair the damage to his standing caused by the Iraq war and his "shoulder-to-shoulder" support for George Bush.

The Prime Minister will try to reconnect with the public by concentrating on bread-and-butter domestic issues and pursuing a "Britain comes first" policy. Although Labour's private polling shows Iraq fading as an issue, many voters feel they have "lost" Mr Blair to foreign affairs in his second term, with some telling pollsters: "We want our Prime Minister back."

A three-hour cabinet meeting yesterday agreed that Labour's election campaign will focus on three key issues: the Government's economic record, its plans to modernise public services, and neutralising the Tory attack over crime and asylum.

Alan Milburn, Labour's election co-ordinator, said afterwards: "The public accepts the Prime Minister has a lot of foreign policy issues to deal with. Many disagreed with us on Iraq, but Tony knows the coming election is above all a fight about the future of Britain. So between now and the election the Prime Minister will be spending more time out of London than in it, but in Britain rather than overseas.

"He will continue to see the job through in Iraq, chair the G8 [group of leading industrial nations], on Africa and climate change. But Britain comes first. He will be leading the domestic debate from the front."

The Prime Minister will keep his foreign travel to a bare minimum in the next three months. Mr Milburn promised that he would "take the flak" from critics by meeting as many ordinary people as possible.

Labour's election slogan, "Britain forward not back", will be launched next weekend at Labour's spring conference, which will kick-start the party's campaign for a 5 May election.

He said people did not want a return to a "failed Tory past". He added: "People don't think we're perfect. They know we have not done everything we - or they - want us to. But they do believe we've made a lot of change and they want to see more of it. They believe the country is moving in the right direction and they don't want a reverse course."

Mr Milburn said Labour would maintain an "aggressive campaign" against Michael Howard, and refused to apologise for posters on its website which were criticised as anti-Semitic by some Jewish people.

In a national newspaper advert today, Labour will give its own version of Mr Howard's "I believe" personal statement, claiming that he believes in £35bn of public spending cuts, that the poll tax was fair, and in "taking Britain back not forward".

Labour will mount a counter-attack against the Tories' immigration policy this weekend, before unveiling its own "firm but fair" strategy next week. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, this week bowed to pressure from Mr Blair to bring in a "points system" for immigrants in an attempt to reassure public fears. But it will be less rigid than the scheme that applies in Australia, which has been endorsed by the Conservative Party.

Tensions between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown resurfaced yesterday after two newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch suggested that the Chancellor might accept a move to the Foreign Office after the election. Blair and Brown allies blamed each other for the reports.

The reports followed speculation that Mr Blair will try to prise Mr Brown out of his Treasury power base, but that the Chancellor would refuse the Foreign Office, opting instead to go to the back benches.

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