Smith challenges Major to mount Leyland rescue

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JOHN SMITH, the Labour leader, moved yesterday to exploit Tory disarray over the Prime Minister's attitude to manufacturing industry by challenging John Major to intervene at Leyland Daf.

As ministers sought to play down the Prime Minister's apparent repudiation of the economic record of the Thatcher years, Mr Smith called on Mr Major 'to prove his new-found commitment to manufacturing' by keeping the plant open. In a strongly-worded speech, the Labour leader accused Mr Major of refusing to accept responsibility for government failings, and of 'cynically' distancing himself 'from the mistakes of his past'.

His attack followed Mr Major's interview in the Independent on Thursday, in which he argued that Britain needed a bigger industrial base, and spoke of the poor shape of the economy he inherited when he became Prime Minister in 1990.

The Labour leader said: 'Mr Major tells us that after 14 years he's woken up to the fact that Tory policies haven't worked. But as we would expect from the man who has elevated excuses into an art form, the fault is entirely Mrs Thatcher's. Isn't it extraordinary how Mr Major never accepts responsibility for anything that happens? Three million unemployed - 'not my fault'. Declining public standards? - 'nothing to do with me'. Mounting crime? - 'not my problem'. The longest recession since the Thirties - 'Sorry, I'm only Prime Minister'.'

Addressing Labour's North West Regional Conference in Blackpool, Mr Smith said that the Leyland Daf issue provided a vital test for Mr Major and called on him to provide the same support as the Dutch government. 'If he thinks manufacturing matters, let him prove it,' he said.

The Labour leader rejected the charge made by Mr Major in the Commons on Thursday that Labour was talking the country down. 'It is not Britain but him and his incompetent government we are attacking,' Mr Smith said. 'He told us a year ago that recovery was just around the corner. And before that he told us the recession would never happen at all. And as wreckage follows wreckage, disaster follows disaster, as the reality of three million out of work and rising, he still produces the same anodyne phrases.'

Mr Major's optimism was 'misplaced', his assurances that things will improve 'bogus', Mr Smith said. He called for the Government to reverse its pit-closure plan, abandon its privatisation proposals, and release councils' capital receipts to fund a house- building programme.

On crime, Mr Smith said that the Government could not 'substitute its responsibility for individual behaviour. But it is up to the Government to take tough action to protect the public' and 'to tackle poverty, to create better housing conditions, to improve education and job opportunities, so that we can build a society in which children and teenagers have a stake'.

Turning to internal party reform, Mr Smith reiterated his commitment to one member, one vote and of giving a 'new expression of the essential links between the party and the trades unions', which should be modernised rather than broken.