Major takes slow train and lets the economy take the Tory strain

Click to follow
A clear hint that John Major intends to play it long to give economic recovery a chance to rescue Conservative support was given yesterday by the Prime Minister in an electioneering tour in the North East.

Talking up the recovery, Mr Major said it was becoming increasingly understood by people that Britain was outpacing other European countries, including France and Germany, and the evidence of the up-turn was in the high street.

"How soon that translates itself into votes we will have to wait and see," Mr Major said.

"I think the British people will see the prospects opening up. I don't think they will want to throw them away."

He shrugged off suggestions that the Government would be unable to close the gap between the recovery and its low showing in the opinion polls. "I have always thought you would see the full recovery of support when people actually have an election date, and people see a clear-cut decision before them.

"It is at that stage people will sit back and think, `Are things getting better for me? Are things getting better for the country? And do I wish to put that at risk?' As we come up to the election, that will become increasingly apparent."

Mr Major last night told a business awards dinner on Teesside that the recovery was being felt across the country. "We really can hope that we are waving goodbye to the North-South divide," he added.

His visit was partly aimed at exorcising a ghost left by Margaret Thatcher on her visit to Stockton after the 1987 general election when she made her now famous "walk in the wilderness" at a derelict industrial site.

Mr Major said he had visited Stockton to highlight economic recovery in the North East and the site on which Mrs Thatcher had tiptoed through broken bottles and long grass was now occupied by a university, 500 homes, a hotel, a watersports centre, and the local commercial radio station, TFM, on which he did a half-hour phone-in show.

Today Mr Major will issue a rallying cry to Tory supporters at a Birmingham rally. He will try to convince hard-pressed party activists in the Midlands, where the marginal seats could hold the key to the election result, that they can still win.

The Prime Minister will also announce a major development of education policy, aimed at putting Labour on the defensive over grammar schools and nursery vouchers. It could herald the introduction of vouchers for secondary education.

His prime aim yesterday appeared to be to rally support among the faithful, as the guest at a private party luncheon organised by the millionaire financier, Sir John Hall, who was knighted by Margaret Thatcher, at his private estate in North Cleveland. Sir John, the charismatic chairman of Newcastle United Football Club, is also an important backer of the Conservative Party but party officials insisted that the meeting for 200 invited voluntary workers was not a fund-raising event.

The Prime Minister rejected as "the politics of abuse rather than reality", the accusation by Tony Blair that Mr Major was the prisoner of the Tory right on the single European currency. "Sometimes you have to stand out against other people in the European Union in the British interest," Mr Major said. And he recalled that Mrs Thatcher was isolated when she won Britain's rebate - further evidence that her ghosts have not been laid.

There has been speculation that Mr Major could announce the date for the election today and government departments have been asked to clear the decks of legislation by the end of March. For example, the National Health Service Primary Care Bill - agreement having been reached with the British Medical Association - is being accelerated for royal assent by the end of next month.

But Mr Major is likely to keep Mr Blair guessing a little longer although it appears clear he has 1 May in his sights. The Prime Minister toured a re-training centre on Teesside but close friends say he will not need re-training if he loses his job in May - he is content to go back to the City in the knowledge that he could not be blamed for defeat.

And he had advice for anyone wanting his job in his radio interview. He said being prime minister meant you had to be able to go without sleep, another habit belonging to Baroness Thatcher, as she is now.