Conservatives get their hundreds and thousands mixed up

Inaccurate claim about scale of teenage pregnancy is latest Tory slip-up
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Indy Politics

David Camerson put the Conservatives on a full election footing yesterday, but hit an immediate setback as the party made an embarrassing mistake in its campaign literature.

Information released by the party, claimed that more than half of girls – 54 per cent – in the most deprived communities fell pregnant before their 18th birthday. The claim, in a document detailing the gap between the Britain's richest and poorest areas, was breathtaking. It was also untrue: a crucial decimal point was missing from the actual figure, which is 5.4 per cent.

A series of errors in recent weeks has raised tensions in Tory HQ, with shadow ministers anxious that such blunders are blunting the impact of their pre-election campaign.

The party yesterday announced radical plans to give public sector workers direct control over services such as schools and job centres. The initiative, coinciding with a new appeal to disillusioned Labour voters, was intended to evoke the memory of Margaret Thatcher's flagship policy of selling council houses.

But a senior Tory source acknowledged yesterday that the mistake over pregnancy rates had "taken the edge off" the announcement of an important public sector reform.

The party insisted the error did not affect the gist of their argument that the Government was failing the country's most disadvantaged communities. A spokesman said: "We produce large numbers of documents all the time. In common with other parties, mistakes are made."

However, the slip handed ammunition to Labour, with Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, accusing the Tories of peddling "smears and distortions". He added that the correct figure of a 5.4 per cent pregnancy rate represented a fall from six per cent in 1998.

Mr Cameron yesterday began moving his office from the Palace of Westminster to an open-plan "war room" at Conservative Campaign Headquarters in preparation for the election expected on 6 May. George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, who is taking charge of the campaign, is already working from Tory HQ.

The Tory leader is reviewing the way his team operates after a number of errors dented the party's momentum. The Independent disclosed last week that he had warned senior colleagues to "get a grip" on decision-making and presentation of policy.

Party strategists are working on the assumption that Gordon Brown will go to Buckingham Palace around 6 April to seek the dissolution of Parliament. The Commons would rise about a week later, leaving an election campaign of three weeks.

Some believe the Prime Minister could announce the election slightly earlier in the hope that a longer campaign could benefit Labour.

Mr Cameron attempted to put the party on the front foot yesterday by promising a Conservative government would give state sector employees the right to run their workplaces.

They would form small co-operatives to take over the administration of primary schools, nursing teams and job centres. The services, which would still be run with taxpayers' money, would agree contracts with town halls or NHS trusts and would retain existing standards such as the national curriculum.

Mr Osborne said yesterday the new policy could enable teachers to remove under-performing school heads. He said: "In any organisation where the bosses had completely lost the confidence of the staff, then one would look at the future of those bosses. He added: "This is as big a transfer of power to working people since the sale of council house homes in the 1980s."

Last night Labour dismissed the co-operative scheme as a "gimmick" and a "smokescreen" designed to conceal planned cuts to frontline services. Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary of the Unite union, said: "David Cameron is using the language of socialism to mask a break-up of public services."

The Conservatives yesterday issued a list of 10 reasons to vote for them, including the "top priority" of the NHS, as well as dealing with the debt crisis, creating jobs, protecting the poorest, supporting families, education, keeping down bills, fairness for pensioners, fighting crime and building affordable homes.