Resolute Major sticks to guns over 1 May poll

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Indy Politics
The Prime Minister last night gave the clearest signal so far that he intends to hang on until his preferred date of 1 May for the election as the Ulster Unionists appeared poised to save the Government from defeat in a censure motion on Monday.

John Major said on Sky News that there was still legislation to be put through Parliament and he wanted the economic dividends of Government policy to "flow through" to the public - including the 1p in the pound tax cut in the Budget.

Dismissing Monday's censure motion as a "stunt", he advised Labour to "sit back and relax and not get excited" about the prospect of an early election. His remarks confirmed The Independent report saying he had chosen 1 May.

But Labour was whipping up speculation of an earlier snap poll, with the Deputy Leader, John Prescott, saying Mr Major was to lead a debate on the constitution next Thursday, with a Tory conference on Saturday. "Money at the bookies is pouring on to 20 March as the day for the general election," Mr Prescott added.

Mr Major's chances of staying in power were strengthened by David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader. Last night he gave a clear signal that his party would save the Government from defeat in the crunch vote in the Commons, when he said he was "irritated" by the lack of consultation over Labour's tactics.

Senior Shadow Cabinet members privately discounted the chance of inflicting defeat on the Government, with at least two of the nine UU MPs expected to be away from the vote, but Labour insisted it was right to force Mr Major onto the defensive.

Tony Blair has decided to attack over the "mad cow" crisis because he believes that it is Mr Major's biggest weak spot. "He thinks it is Major's poll tax," a leadership source said last night.

Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, who was in confident mood yesterday after getting the backing of the Cabinet, will open the debate for the Government against Labour's attack. "We are going to win," he told colleagues. "I am looking forward to it."

Mr Major will go on the offensive against Labour next Thursday in a Commons debate on constitutional reform, which he believes is Mr Blair's Achilles' heel.

The Prime Minister will tell a Tory conference in Wales today the debate is Labour's chance to deliver the truth about their plans. "No nods, no winks, no smoke and mirrors. It is the beginning of the British inquisition for Mr Blair."

In the Commons, the Labour leader challenged Mr Major over the fact that the beef export ban had not been lifted, as promised, last November and that not one single animal had been slaughtered under the selective cull scheme.

He also pointed out that Britain had not yet put a formal proposal to Brussels about lifting the export ban for BSE-free herds in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and that the fiasco had already cost pounds 3.3bn.

The Prime Minister retaliated, blaming Labour for whipping up the scare about beef safety. "I find your behaviour throughout this whole crisis absolutely astonishing," Mr Major told the Labour leader.

"Not once have you put the interests of the British beef industry in front of making petty party political points."

Mr Trimble said Labour's attempt to pass a censure motion against Mr Hogg "not helpful" to the Ulster Unionist hopes of getting final approval in the European Union for the specified herd scheme, which could allow the ban on beef exports to be lifted in Northern Ireland before the rest of the UK.

"I was not aware they were going to do it," Mr Trimble said. "It was more than a little irritating that they failed to consult us." He was annoyed that the plan to force a censure motion was not raised when he met Mo Mowlam, Labour's spokeswoman on Northern Ireland, on Wednesday for talks about Labour's approach to policing the marching season in Ulster.