Major fashions image to suit challenge posed by Blair: The Prime Minister's double-breasted look last week excited style gurus. Mary Braid reports

JOHN MAJOR made his position clear in his speech at last week's Conservative Party conference. Oh yes. Tony Blair, youthful, sharp and slick, might be breathing down his neck, but the Prime Minister was interested in policies not image or sound-bites.

Strange then that so many politicians, journalists and style gurus should remark on last week's new, remodelled Mr Major.

Yesterday John Taylor, editor of British Style Magazine, congratulated the Prime Minister on his switch to rich, deep blue and 'darkly assertive' charcoal. He suggested that in the fashion stakes at least, Mr Major was making Mr Blair look yesterday's man.

The new John left an even deeper impression on Mary Spillane, the American head of Color Me Beautiful, Britain's leading image consultancy.

'When I saw him on Thursday my pulse raced,' said Ms Spillane. 'I was so excited. He has a few new double-breasted suits which suit him wonderfully well. He was wearing a tie with polka dots the size of a 5p piece which is simply wild for him. He was just short of edible.'

But old grey habits die hard. 'It turned out to be an emotional roller-coaster,' said Ms Spillane, a former adviser to Ronald Reagan, the former US president.

'By Friday he had fallen back. For the big speech it was a return to the pseudo policeman look, pin-stripe suit and boring burgundy tie.'

The style counsellers are backed by Tory politicians who say Mr Major, while slower off the mark than Margaret Thatcher - she had her teeth straightened, her voice lowered and her hair gradually transformed into a helmet - is sharpening up his act to counter the Blair factor. Out goes the underpants-over-the-trousers image and in come the tailor-made, expensive suits.

Peter Howarth, style editor for GQ magazine, argues that it is nonsense to believe an election result could hang on a suit and that image consultants exaggerate the importance of appearance.

But Ms Spillane insists image can 'make or break' politicians. She judges Mr Blair currently ahead, cleverly disguising his slight stature in a modification of the baggy Eurosuit. It appears that Mr Blair's hips do not swivel enough for the real thing.

For today's first encounter at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, she suggests Mr Major should stick with the double-breasted suit to gloss over those imperfections. 'John's problem is that he is pear-shaped - wide in the beam and sloping at the shoulders. That is usually a problem for women,' she said.

Mr Major and Mr Blair's advisers insist that the leaders do not employ professional image makers. A Downing Street spokesman said there was no shortage of free advice in newspapers.