Major lays claim to radical mantle: Speech will be seen as pre-emptive strike against Thatcherite wing's criticisms

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Indy Politics
JOHN MAJOR sought to lay the ghost of Thatcherism yesterday by claiming his government was more radical, and that he had fulfilled more manifesto commitments in the first year of his government.

The Prime Minister's speech to Newspaper Society editors in London will be seen as a pre- emptive strike against criticism within his own party about a lack of leadership.

With the Maastricht treaty nearing its final stages in the Commons, the rumblings of discontent had started again among ministers on the Thatcherite wing of the party. 'The voters may say that Labour is worth the risk at the next general election,' said one minister. 'We need to be more courageous. But there is no sign of that.'

Mr Major met such criticism head-on, arguing that he had been more radical than the Thatcher government by abolishing Neddy, the national economic development council, on which the unions met the Government; by preparing British Rail for privatisation; and by scrapping the wages councils, covering some of the lowest paid.

'We have turned over some stones that were left unturned in the 1980s,' he said. 'We are saying that our public services are no longer no-go areas for Government reforms, pushing through changes as profound and wide-ranging as anything we attempted in the 1980s.'

His government had already fulfilled a third of the pledges it made in the election manifesto in April 1992 - more than in the first year of Lady Thatcher's three administrations. 'More manifesto pledges have been honoured in the Parliamentary year since the 1992 election than was achieved after the elections of 1979, 1983, 1987,' he said.

Labour said the speech showed a lack of confidence by Mr Major in his own leadership. 'It smacks of self-justification born of a total lack of self-confidence. It is an admission that he has failed to get his message across because it is a message the majority of people don't want to hear,' said a source close to the Labour leadership.

Mr Major confirmed that the next session will be dominated by law and order, and deregulation - two areas which the government whips believe will reunite the Tory party in Parliament after the divisions caused by the Maastricht treaty.

However, his Tory critics no longer have confidence in law and order measures. One said the 1991 Criminal Justice Bill - containing the system of income-related fines which is now to be changed - had proved a 'disaster'.

Mr Major said deregulation was 'an absolute priority'. His critics regard that as 'worthy but boring' and want radical reform of the welfare state, with more self-financed provision for state pensions and unemployment benefit, which the Government would not contemplate introducing before the election.