Upbeat Major pledges election victory

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The Independent Online
John Major yesterday put a bullish promise to make a privatised British Rail "the envy of the world" at the centre of a pre-election agenda which he assured his embattled party would help to pave the way to a fifth victory at the polls in two year s' time.

Warning Tories not to be complacent about the next election or to think that they had a "divine right" to govern, he nevertheless went out of his way to hearten his supporters with an upbeat pledge that Britain now has a "broad-based recovery unlike any other since 1945, and that taxes would be cut as soon as it was prudent to do so.

Brushing aside both the opinion-poll evidence that the planned sell-off of BR is the most unpopular to date, and the Opposition's stated determination to prevent it taking place, Mr Major pledged not only that it would go ahead but would, in time, be as successful as that of British Airways.

And he went on to attack Labour on the issue with a gibe at Labour's newly reinforced commitment to a publicly-owned British Rail - claiming it represented the "danegeld" that the Opposition leader, Tony Blair, would have to pay the trade unions to secure their support for scrapping Clause IV.

Mr Major underlined his determination to go ahead with both the sale of franchises and the flotation of Railtrack as John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, said a Labour government would allow any private sector franchises to run their course, but would

then allow BR to bid to bring them back into public ownership.

The Prime Minister used his second set-piece Downing Street press conference in seven months to confirm that he had already invited senior Cabinet ministers to set up a series of planning groups - including outside experts - to think "boldly and imaginatively" about what should form the "next phase of Conservatism" embodied in the 1992 election manifesto.

He said that a series of Chequers seminars on domestic and social issues including "jobs, health education, public services" would be similar to policy examinations before the 1992 general election but would be "much wider and with a much longer perspective". He added: "I intend to have the widest possible debate to build the next phase of Conservatism to plan new policies for government in the new millenium."

Insisting that he could now "see a road to unity" on European policy in the run-up to the Inter-Governmental Conference on the EU's future in 1996, and repeating that he was ready to veto any constititutional changes that he thought would be "inappropriate" for Europe or the United Kingdom", he held out the prospect of early reconciliation with his Euro-rebels.

While warning that "it took two to tango" he added, in an oblique reference to the decision by five rebels to back the Government last week in a procedural vote: "I think some of the resolution is now in place and I think the rest of the resolution is now a clear path so I believe they will come back."

Mr Major failed to fulfil some Opposition expectations that he would bow to pressure for legislation to curb executive salaries and perks - saying instead it would be up to "peer pressure", shareholder power and the sort of code currently being examined by the CBI to restrain the kinds of payments to directors which have been so unpopular among Conservative supporters.

Mr Major said that he shared the concern felt by many over "some of these pay increases", but added: "In opposition you can play gesture politics. In government you can't."

Delivering his now familiar broadside against Labour's plans for devolution, Mr Major several times used the very word to describe Tory changes giving more local control over schools and hospitals. But warning of the threat of an English "backlash" agai n st a Scottish Parliament and what he insisted would be its adverse effect on the Scottish economy, he left no doubt that he sees it as a defining issue in the election.

Ulster pledge, page 2

Labour devolution split, page 4

Prescott backtracks, page 5

Leading article, page 13