Major plans a summer offensive against Blair: Tories attempt to reclaim core issues

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JOHN MAJOR is planning a summer offensive against Labour under Tony Blair in an attempt to refocus the Tory party on its traditional strong ground of law and order, education and low taxation.

Mr Major will also seek to upstage Mr Blair's 'coronation' by announcing the Government reshuffle, expected tomorrow.

The Prime Minister has told colleagues he believes the Conservatives need to regain ground which has been lost to Labour on its core values. When Mr Major returns from his August holiday he intends to reassert the Government's commitment on the three key issues, on which he believes they have won and held power for 15 years. Tory strategists fear Labour has succeeded in taking some of the Tory's strongest ground as a result of rising crime, disarray on education testing and the biggest tax increases since the war.

The strategy will be seen as an attempt by Mr Major to shift the party to the right. It may also be seen as a return to the 'back to basics' theme, discredited when it became entangled with moral values and a spate of sex scandals involving prominent Tory MPs.

It will also mark a victory for the Prime Minister's advisers against some key Cabinet ministers on the left of the party, including Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, David Hunt, the Secretary of State for Employment, and Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, who recently warned against ideology for its own sake.

Tory strategists have been arguing against branding Labour under Mr Blair's leadership as a pale imitation of the Tories. That theme underpinned a recent speech by Mr Clarke who accused Labour of being 'political transvestites'. Senior Tories have been alarmed at the willingness of Mr Clarke and Mr Hunt to match the rhetoric of Labour's commitment to 'full employment'. Tory advisers have warned against attempting to defeat Labour on the centre- ground of British politics.

'We have won the battle of ideas over the past decade, on trade union reforms, on the economy, on law and order. We should not concede that ground now,' one highly placed Tory source said.

But the strategy risks alienating some of those on the left of the Tory party who feel that the electorate are waiting for a more caring form of Conservativism, which the Tories have failed to deliver in the post-Thatcher era.

Mr Major gave the first hint of the strategy in his end-of-term address to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs, which many interpreted as being a reversion to right-wing principles.

The Government's business managers have also ensured that Mr Blair's election is not given any momentum at Westminster, by denying him a platform at Prime Minister's questions until the autumn, as the House of Commons rises for the summer recess.

The reshuffle will serve a similar function. One minister said: 'If he waits until after Blair's election, it will look like a reaction to his leadership.' Many MPs are preparing to leave for their constituencies on Thursday and some Tory backbenchers will be waiting for the call to Downing Street. The reshuffle will try to freshen the appearance of the Government, but it is unlikely to be the last of the big moves around the Cabinet. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, is expected to step down before the election, with Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, tipped to replace him.

Andrew Marr, page 17