Senior party sources said there had never been enthusiasm at Conservative Central Office for the idea of the debate, to which Mr Blair challenged the Prime Minister "at any time, at any place".
Some Tory strategists believe the debate would be a "no-win" platform for Mr Major, giving the Labour leader an equal footing in a head-to- head confrontation, with the risk that it would give the appearance of the Prime Minister on the ropes in defending the Government's record.
The Tory campaign planners are focusing on the personality of the Prime Minister to "sell" their message, but they are resisting the suggestion that the election campaign will be presidential in style.
They insist it will be no more presidential than past clashes between Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock, and Mr Kinnock with Mr Major, although this time the personality differences may be needed to underscore the differences between the parties.
The campaign mounted yesterday, featuring the patriotic lion shedding a red tear, followed intensive Tory discussions about whether or not they should run an overtly Euro-sceptic campaign. The party's advertising agents urged them to do so, but Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, and Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, were worried about the risk of alienating their own pro-European MPs. They insisted the lion symbol was not Euro-sceptic but anti-Labour.
The Tories will focus on tax:"We will be connecting spending to taxation, showing how much more they would spend, with the consequence that taxes would go up," said a Tory source. Labour have rebutted the allegations that they are planning to raise spending, with the shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, ruling out any increase in spending for the next two years.
t Labour's lead over the Conservatives has been cut by one point to 16 points, according to an ICM-Guardian poll today which shows Labour on 48 (no change), the Tories on 32 (+1) and Liberal Democrats 15 (-1).Reuse content