LONDON -- Prime Minister John Major laid out his Conservative agenda for the 1990s yesterday, promising a mixture of old and new policies but giving no clue as to when he will call the next general election.
His confidence and clarity won him a standing ovation from the Conservative Party faithful at the end of a week of confusion over abandonment of the unpopular poll tax, the flagship of Margaret Thatcher's last term as prime minister.
Mr. Major defended the decision to replace the poll tax with a combination property-and-people levy.
But in what was widely viewed as his most important domestic political speech since he became prime minister four months XTC ago, he was at pains to shift the focus from past problems to future prospects.
Mr. Major gave no hint of when he would call an election. With party unity and morale in doubt and economic recovery not expected to be in full flow for several months, speculation is shifting from an early ballot in June to one in the fall or next spring.
Mr. Major unveiled a "comprehensive citizens charter" aimed at making public services better.
"I will work for quality across the whole range of public services from health to education," he told the delegates to the party's Central Council meeting. "People who depend on public services -- patients, passengers, parents, pupils, benefit claimants -- all must know where they stand and what services they have a right to expect."
Regarding education, a long-troubled sector here, he said there had been too much experimentation and too little attention to the basics.
"Theories come and go, but children have just one opportunity to be taught, and that must not be wasted," he said.
Mr. Major, who has recently overseen a series of tactical retreats from Mrs. Thatcher's economic and social policies, made it clear that he was not abandoning them all in pursuit of "more caring" conservatism.
More Thatcher-style privatization was on the way, he promised, citing coal and railroads as two publicly-owned entities that should be privately run.
"There is no reason why they should not be in the private sector, and into it they will go," he said.
Even as Mr. Major spoke, an estimated 10,000 demonstrators were marching through London to celebrate the death of the poll tax. It was the anniversary of the violent poll tax riot in central London a year ago, but yesterday's march was peaceful.