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Tuesday, 5 September, 2000, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
Hague: Tories 'ready for government'
Tory leader William Hague
William Hague leaves tax questions unanswered
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

William Hague has attempted to keep a grip on the political agenda with the release of the Tories' draft election manifesto.

The 30-page document, "Believing in Britain", sets out more than 100 policies which, Mr Hague claimed, represent a "striking new social agenda for Conservatism".

Before MPs went on their long break, Mr Hague had presided over a significant revival in Tory fortunes.

But, for the first time since it was elected, Labour managed a gaffe-free summer and the momentum appeared to be slipping away from Mr Hague.

The manifesto launch was a determined attempt to regain the initiative and present the Tories as "ready for government".

To that end, Mr Hague mapped out some radical new policies for education, welfare and the economy.

Drifting to destruction

And he put the issue of Europe at the very centre of his campaign, insisting it was time to draw a line in the sand against the channelling of more power to Brussels.

He event went so far as to suggest that, unless the rot was stopped, Britain could be "drifting to its own destruction".

After a couple of years facing claims that the Tories were a policy-free zone, Mr Hague has now produced an abundance of proposals.

There is no doubt that politicians on all sides are now firmly on election red alert, with most believing it will come next spring.

But, in his desire to keep the political momentum going, Mr Hague has released his proposals sooner than many expected.

And, while he pledged to pull off the difficult double act of cutting taxes while at the same time raising spending, he did not spell out precise details of how that would be financed.

That is probably wise - no party wants to be too precise about its tax and spending plans until the virtual eve of a general election.

It risks not only offering hostages to fortune but also allows the opposition plenty of time to tear the plans apart.

Free calculator

But it inevitably allowed Labour to persist with its charge that a Tory government would make 16bn worth of cuts in key public services and demanding to know where the cuts would come.

Scottish Secretary Dr John Reid was outside the manifesto press conference handing out free calculators to journalists "to help you make the Tory plans add up".

However, both Mr Hague and his shadow chancellor Michael Portillo have pledged to map out nearer to the election exactly how their figures add up.

What the manifesto launch did, was to make clear precisely the areas in which Mr Hague expects the next election to be fought. Top of that list is, as expected, Europe.

Not only has Mr Hague ruled out joining the single currency in the lifetime of the next parliament, but he has gone further in setting out how he would try to stop the creation of a European "superstate".

While insisting he would not renegotiate existing treaties, he insisted he would set out specific reserve powers which Brussels could not usurp.

It is his strongest line yet on Europe and Mr Hague clearly believes he has stuck a chord with voters over the issue.

And what is certain is that, as Britain enters what threatens to be the longest election campaign ever, there will be many more announcements from all the parties as they jockey for position over the coming months.

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