Blair plays his trump card - Tory indecision

 

"LET it happen. Let's get on with it." With those words Mr Tony Blair yesterday challenged Mr John Major to name the date for Britain's general election.

The Labour leader said the British people were fed up and wanted to make their decision. And he described leadership as a central election issue, declaring: "In uncertain times Britain cannot afford an uncertain prime minister. And Britain cannot afford as its government a party incapable of being led."

At the start of his "near term" campaign, Mr Blair promised he had no hidden tax rises in his back pocket as he renewed earlier pledges to extend educational opportunity, reform the welfare state, put some 250,000 young people off welfare into work, build a new partnership with industry and business, decentralise power and make Britain strong in Europe.

Also, while he promised to protect the national veto, the Labour leadership yesterday held out the possibility that it might be in a position to reach agreement on a new European Union Treaty at the Amsterdam summit next June. Mr Robin Cook, Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, said the party was "tracking" the continuing EU negotiations - now led by the Dutch presidency - and could get off "to a flying start" if it won the election. However, there was a proviso that agreement would require "the right deal" for Britain.

Like Mr Major, Mr Blair showed no inclination to depart from the "wait and see" approach to the proposed single currency - promising a referendum to seek the people's consent should a Labour government decide in favour.

Standing at the podium with a fluttering Union flag as his backdrop, Mr Blair claimed: "It is new Labour that is best able to lead Britain into the future." He said the difference between his leadership, and the leadership of the government "is that we deliver what we promise".

He continued: "As the public survey the shambles of today's Tories, they are entitled to ask: `if they cannot run their own party, why on earth should we let them run the country?'" The Tories, he said, "would love to be fighting the Labour Party of the late 70s and early 80s. They are not".

Opening a theme likely to be repeated from now until polling day, Mr Blair posed the question:

"Do the Tories deserve to win again?" It was difficult, he claimed, to find even Tory supporters who said yes: "And when they [the Tory leadership] were asked [on Monday] what they would do for the future, answer came there none. No forward vision; nothing but attacks upon Labour."

However, the tenor of yesterday's press conference will have left the Labour leadership in little doubt that the questioning will persist about its tax and spend policies. If no tax changes were planned, Mr Blair was asked, what was to stop him there and then confirming what the top rate would be? Mr Blair rejoined that his published plans did not contain a single commitment requiring any changes in personal taxation.

And he repeated that if any changes were planned they would be announced before the election. Labour, he said, offered different choices and priorities within current spending limits - with the one off windfall tax the key element in triggering its work for welfare policy.

Mr Blair mocked Mr Major for attacking Labour plans to improve democracy while himself defending the hereditary peerage - and likewise Labour's plans to reduce class sizes while maintaining the subsidy to send the few to private schools.

But the Labour leader established two no go areas on this first day of his near term campaign. He declined to comment on "court decisions" when asked about the caution administered to the Oasis star Liam Gallagher for possession of cocaine. And when asked if he" would welcome "Queen Camilla", the Labour leader said he was not aware the matter was under discussion.

In a subsequent radio interview, Mr Blair rejected Tory suggestions that Labour's constitutional plans would ultimately threaten the monarchy. "The position is clear. We have said it all the way through. We support the monarchy," said Mr Blair.