Local Elections: Major puts campaign strategy to the test: Birmingham sets scene for elections

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JOHN MAJOR banged the Tory drum in Birmingham yesterday, his first regional foray since it was announced that he would lead from the front during his party's local council election campaign.

During his tour, the Prime Minister was keen to defuse the damage done in the Second City last week by the Conservative election broadcast which attacked what it called the waste of council taxpayers' money, by Birmingham City Council, on mobile telephones for gravediggers. He said in the Birmingham Post that he was not attacking the city but its 'financially incompetent' controlling Labour group.

Mr Major also said in the interview that crime was the 'sleeping giant' among the election issues. 'People feel the situation is worse than it is, though I am not being complacent. Fear of crime has grown. The level of crime looks as though it is levelling off, although that is not good enough and it has got to drop.'

The Prime Minister defended his decision to go on the road, which was making his leadership an election issue. 'If I went out and about, people would say, 'What a reckless fellow going out and about in a local government election'. But if I had stayed at home, they would have said, 'Why is he staying at home? These elections are important . . .' '

However, the Tory campaign strategy has made it impossible for Mr Major to avoid the elections being treated as a referendum on his leadership. He was berated by one Tory party member on a local radio phone-in programme: 'I am defending you. Why don't you stand up and defend yourself?'

Mr Major said: 'The idea of standing there and saying I am doing the right thing . . . I always find myself a little self- conscious about that. I would rather do what I believe to be right and let people stand back and judge it and see whether, in time, it is right.' He said that politicians the world over were unpopular because of the recession. And when public opinion turned sour, it was difficult to get the media to concentrate on long-term needs.

Cabinet ministers will also be pitched into the campaign this week, with regional tours likely by John Gummer, Secretary of State for Environment, and Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage. David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, is expected to defend the Government's record on unemployment at a press conference in London.

The high-profile Cabinet campaign for the local and European elections will continue with Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, campaigning across the country, including the West Country, where the Liberal Democrats are threatening to gain seats from the Tories.

Mr Major's leadership was put under renewed pressure last night by a poll showing that his party could lose more than half its 32 seats in the European elections on 9 June.

The Mori poll in the Times today gives Labour 48 per cent, a 20-point lead over the Tories on 28, with the Liberal Democrats on 21 per cent. A uniform swing would reduce the Conservative seats from 32 to 15, although the figures - taken from an aggregated analysis over the three months to March - were being treated with caution at Westminster.