Major fires opening salvo at New Labour


Mr John Major yesterday showed that he hopes to keep smiling through to an unexpected fifth term, writes Frank Millar, London Editor


MR JOHN MAJOR settled one thing yesterday. Britain's general election will resolve itself into "a choice between smiles and tears.

And he and Mr Tony Blair together contrived to ensure Britain's beggars will have nothing to smile about in this election year.

The Prime Minister, we know, plans to keep smiling through to an unprecedented and unexpected, fifth term. But for the moment - and for some time to come - the Tory emphasis is on the tears.

Mr Major made his cast-iron prediction at the launch of his "nearly term" campaign, against a backdrop of classical grey in the Conservative Party's new media centre. One commentator likened it to "the high-tech, up-market boiler room of a newly commissioned submarine." The party chairman, Dr Brian Mawhinney, took charge of the proceedings. He wished everyone a Happy New Year while looking as if he didn't entirely mean it, or at any rate was less-than-comfortable with the concept.

The Prime Minister hammered home the message that people could have a happy new year. Sound Tory management of the economy, and the willingness to take tough decisions, had seen to that. Growth was healthy. Inflation and interest rates were satisfactorily lowish.

Unemployment was falling, exports buoyant. But people were courting a risk. If it was "hellishly" difficult sometimes for the Tories to cut public expenditure, just imagine what it would be like under Labour.

The posters around the boiler room spelt it out. Doleful families and individuals, their tears blood-red. New Labour, New Dangers. New Labour, New Taxes. New Labour, New Price Rises. New Labour, New Job Losses. New Labour, New Mortgage Risk. New Labour, New Pension Risk. "New Labour: IT WOULD ALL END IN TEARS."

Not just for the individual and his or her family. But for the nation, too. Of course, Mr Major insisted, Britain must stay in the EU. But they had to determine the nature of that Union as it changed and enlarged. New Labour couldn't be trusted with that task. It and its Lib Dem partners would likely agree greater centralisation. It'd buy the Working Time Directive, and raise the spectre of the Trades Union return by signing the Social Chapter.

And, of course, it'd "surrender the veto" in key areas.

Mr Major didn't quite invoke the spectre of the Europe of the Regions. But it was clear where he was headed. Over a period of years, he said, the tax raising parliament in Edinburgh would find itself in conflict with Westminster. What was Mr Blair's answer to the West Lothian Question? Why should Scottish MPs alone determine Scottish education policy, then travel to Westminster to decide the policy for England and Wales? The nationalist case would be strengthened. Not immediately, but at some point, New Labour's devolution plans would "have lit the fuse toward an independent Scotland". The Scots, too, would be crying, when they discovered higher taxes meant higher wage demands and a loss of investment.

The boiler room was packed to capacity, but the temperature was never in danger of rising. Maybe it was Mr Major's relaxed and easy manner. Maybe it was the self-imposed restraint of the Tory press pack. But Mr Major took most of the questions in his stride. Yes he was prepared to consider sensible reform of the House of Lords but he was not minded to abolish the hereditary principle. Yes, MPs like Mr Hugh Dykes and Mr George Walden might want to talk to the opposition about constitutional reform. But he, not they spoke for the Conservative Party. It was always difficult to predict the prospects for peace in the North. But it would be "fatal" if the constitutional parties there decided to give Sinn Fein and the IRA "a veto" over the issues needing to be discussed. If they were wise, he said, "they will seek to make progress up to, during, and after the election".

Indeed, the temperature only briefly dipped when the men from the Guardia ii and Channel Four News tackled him about matters closer to home. Of the threat by publicist, Mr Max Clifford, of more exposes, Mr Major vowed "not to be diverted by relative trivia.

And he gave nothing away when asked how the Tories had converted a £11.4 million deficit into a war chest of £24 million. How much had come from overseas? "Very little," he replied. What did that mean? It meant "very little" replied the smile.

The smile broadened in anticipation of the day's best sound bite. Somebody asked about the beggars, Mr Blair's not giving them money and his support for American style "zero tolerance policies on street crime. Labour had criticised Mr Major for saying the same things two years before. Its hypocrisy, charged Mr Major, "beggars belief."

As the temperature outside plummeted, Britain's street dwellers seemed unlikely to see the funny side of it.