Tories lose votes over tax and NHS: Free-market rhetoric upsets 'defectors'. Donald Macintyre and Colin Brown report

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DEFECTING Tory voters are disillusioned with government free- market rhetoric on health and education as well as angry about crime and tax, according to confidential internal research ordered by John Major.

Conservative strategists have identified these elements as being among key reasons for the absence of a 'feel-good' factor.

Research ordered by the Prime Minister shows defecting Tory voters as fiercely right-wing on law and order. But the same electors feel fiercely protective of the NHS. That will be taken as a warning to Mr Major that a simple right-wing shift at next month's party conference could backfire.

The research, commissioned by Conservative Central Office partly to establish why former Tory voters are being slow to respond to the economic recovery, also suggests that while they are enthusiastic about the Government's aim of raising educational standards, they are much less interested in 'choice and diversity' in schooling. The findings are based on qualitative research through discussions with a dozen 'focus groups' of electors who voted Tory in the 1992 general election but now say they do not intend to do so. Not surprisingly, they show strong discontent at the length of the recession and the increase in taxes last April and next. A heartening inference of the research for Tory strategists that is that on public spending, education and law and order, the disaffected voters surveyed still share Conservative values and appear to show no sign of having yet converted to Labour policies - suggesting that the votes are 'recoverable'.

On law and order, the voters were strongly right-wing, advocating long jail terms.

But the disaffected voters are said to show a surprisingly collectivist attitude to the NHS, are highly enthusiastic about the clinical care provided by doctors and nurses, and are hostile and fearful about the NHS being run 'like a business'. The inference being drawn among ministers is that Virginia Bottomley and Gillian Shephard, the Secretaries of State for Health and Education, will need to use next month's party conference to show they expect to be judged by practical results in quality and quantity of patient care and examination results - rather than by, for example, the number of NHS trusts or self-managing schools, or even the cut in administrators.

The research suggests that while Mr Major is well-liked by voters, doubts remain about the strength of his leadership.

Leading article, page 13