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The BBC's Niall Dickson
"The Tories stress their commitment to the NHS"
 real 56k

Thursday, 10 May, 2001, 20:01 GMT
Counting the cost
Tory leader William Hague
Hague promised no giving up on Britain
Nick Assinder

The economy has shot to the top of the election agenda as the parties attempt to out do each other in the taxation stakes.

Both Labour and the Tories claimed only they could be trusted to offer tax cuts without either ruining the economy or slashing public spending.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats stuck to their belief that they could win over voters by promising to increases taxes in order to fund a much-needed boost in education spending.

It was inevitable that the economy, and taxation in particular, would eventually dominate the campaign.

But the leaders showed they were all eager to start mixing it up on the issue as soon as possible.

The clash came as interest rates were again cut, suggesting the US slowdown might be hitting the British economy.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Kennedy still sticking with tax rise
In the past, Labour has suffered badly from its high-tax high-spending reputation but it now portrays itself as the most economically competent party.

And, on the third day of the campaign, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown moved to overshadow the launch of the Tory manifesto with a press conference focussing on its own record on the economy.

Fuel cut

There were no new announcements, but the prime minister and his Chancellor hammered home the message that they would continue managing a sound economy to allow increased spending on public services.

Once again they were careful not to promise never to again to raise taxes, but only that the taxation package would be "balanced" - seen by many to mean that cuts for some would be offset by increases for others.

But the real aim of the conference was to pre-empt William Hague's manifesto launch and get their retaliation in first.

And that they did with an assault on the Tories spending plans - including its key pledge to cut fuel duty by 6p a litre.

They also highlighted an alleged "black hole" in the Tories plans on pensions.

And they even announced that there would be a second event later in the day in which they would produce a ready reckoner costing the pledges made in the Tory programme.

But it was a tough job to knock the Tories off the top of the early news agenda - manifesto launches are, after all, one of the most significant events of any election campaign.

Recycled platform

William Hague strode onto the platform at his conference, which appeared to have been recycled from last year's party conference stage - perhaps a subliminal message that the Tories are careful with their cash - to loud applause form assembled MPs and supporters.

Prime Minister Tony Blair in front of TV link to his deputy John Prescott
TV linked Blair and Prescott
And he set about promising tax cuts met from tackling social security fraud and Whitehall waste.

He pledged again to save the pound, put more police on the streets, help families and pensioners and boost spending on public services. But he also returned to his favourite theme of "Britain".

He did not repeat his pledge to "give you back your country" or his more controversial warning about Labour turning Britain into a foreign land.

Instead he spoke of the country's democracy, history and culture.

"My greatest fear for the country I love is that we will wake up one day and realise something very precious has been lost without quite knowing how we let it happen," he said.

And, in the wake of the race row which recently rocked the Tories, he insisted the party was inclusive, recognising everybody irrespective of their "race, religion or sexual orientation."

By most measures it was a successful manifesto launch and gave the party a good kick start for the rest of the four-week campaign.

There were some lighter momentsduring Thursday's campaigning - John Prescott did a Butlins redcoat-style turn from Portland Bill which was beamed directly onto screens in the Labour press conference.

And the Wombles turned up at the Tory launch urging people to vote for William Hague - the creator of their theme tune also wrote the party's campaign tune.

But this was campaigning at full pitch and there is no sign of any let up.

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