Tory strategists ask for directions: Leadership seeks to beat Blair factor with grass-roots survey. Colin Brown reports

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The Independent Online
THE TORY party yesterday launched a survey of grass-roots opinion aimed at rebuilding confidence in John Major's leadership.

The results of the survey are expected to prompt a shift to the right to counter the appeal of Tony Blair's Labour Party to disgruntled core Tory voters.

More than 3,000 party workers will receive a questionnaire on the priority they give to low taxation, fighting inflation and cutting public spending.

The Prime Minister, who will be briefed about the results, returns today to Downing Street from his holiday in Portugal under renewed fire from some of his colleagues.

One of Mr Major's friends said last night: 'Where has the party been this summer? Blair and Labour have been getting away with murder.'

Cabinet ministers were said to be demoralised by the continual criticism of the Government, in spite of the good news on the economy. 'We have another two years before the next election, but all it means is that the voters will say we've been in power for 18 years,' one highly placed Tory said. Jeremy Hanley, the Conservative Party chairman, will be under pressure to go on the offensive on Monday when he returns from his summer break. Reports that Mr Blair supported a cut in income tax to 15p in the pound are seen as damaging to the Tories.

'Blair is sounding more Tory than the Tories, but we've not heard a word against him,' said the source. Tory strategists believe it is essential to put clear distance between Mr Major and Mr Blair.

Party leaders plan to concentrate on returning to core issues - law and order, education and low taxation - to rebuild confidence at the party conference. Conference resolutions by constituencies call for low taxation, and many criticise the increase in VAT.

The survey, by the Conservative Political Centre, is expected to warn the party leadership to return to its core values to appeal to rank-and-file supporters.

Cuts in public expenditure were given high priority at a summer school organised by the CPC. A briefing paper issued to party workers says that the 100 activists at the seminar wanted a review of spending on the Common Agricultural Policy, social security, local government, social services and probation. They warned against further cuts in defence spending.

Those initial findings echo the feelings of right-wing Tory MPs who warned ministers that the fall in inflation and unemployment would not produce a 'feel-good factor' unless the leadership also steered the party to the right. Senior party strategists admit that the Government has failed to gain praise for recovery. 'People still regard the good news . . . is in spite of the Government. We have got to explain why we are responsible for the recovery,' said one.

The survey was attacked by Frank Dobson, a Labour frontbench spokesman, for failing to raise questions about John Major's leadership and the reasons for thousands of supporters deserting the Tories. 'They are fed up with the lies about tax and the economy. They are sick of the broken promises,' he said.