Books: Nothing comes to those who merely wish

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Explaining Labour's Landslide

by Robert Worcester and Roger Mortimore

Politico's pounds 19.99

P olitical texts, especially those carrying substantial statistical analysis, rarely make fine beach reading. This one does. In a crowded field, Robert Worcester's and Roger Mortimore's book does not merely exhibit an often alluring intellectual incontrovertibility, but also presents a trenchant polemic on a decade of Tory disintegration that should make it essential reading for all those interested in Mr Hague's continuing failure to provide meaningful competition for the Government.

Despite its cover illustration - a fairly brutal Blair caricature - this is in no way a study of Blair's rise to power. It is about Tories. The text opens with a sustained campaign to de-demonise the pollster's trade, quoting, among other leaders, none other than Napoleon Bonaparte for his recognition of the pre-eminence of public opinion. While charting the course of Major's descent to oblivion, the authors, both MORI pollsters, also entertain us with asides, either knocking their pet-hates or making refreshingly untethered observations. The result, laden with ample data sources and graphics, is a rare combination of fierce analysis and highly readable entertainment.

The main thesis is that while Major was able to snatch a surprise victory in April 1992 against a still weak opposition party, the demolition of the central pillars of relative Tory strength - leadership, party unity, economic competence and probity - by the end of September 1992 made Labour's 1997 triumph virtually inevitable. Some would contest this. There is a long and grisly worldwide history of "dead" governments saving their collective skins. But the argument is well-made, most of all in its use of time series data on public perception of these and other virtues, throughout "the long election campaign" from April 1992 to March 1997.

Most of all we are shown in careful detail how the party lost its knack of gaining credit for managing the economy, to the extent that even as the current boom began more than five years ago, millions of electors refused steadfastly to acknowledge those asking for their gratitude - and votes - in return.

It is a most diverting book. A few very minor editorial glitches apart, it burgeons with ballistic intent. The claws sink deep into the flesh of hapless "spin paramedics" and a thousand other victims, not least the chicken hired by the Tories to storm opposition events. One commentator is put in the stocks for quoting himself as an anonymous "television pundit". In another thoroughly purple moment, a former MORI client is pilloried for not paying its bills.

There is also sharp political observation. The text spots how without the 1995 leadership contest there would have been no early cabinet post for William Hague - and thus no candidature in 1997. Douglas Hurd is quoted asserting that a referendum on Maastricht would be to consult the people in a way just "not done".

It is a slight pity that an analysis as tooth-combed as that dealt the Tories on the way down in 1992-97 is not also made for the Blairite Labour project on the simultaneous way up, although this does not devalue the case that is made. Blair's victory on Clause 4 is mentioned exactly once in 254 pages. While in 1992 Labour's image was menaced by continuing trade union and other left-wing presences, the authors say simply that Blair's coup meant Major had "no way back from beyond the Styx". It is also regrettable that even part of the Tory record since May 1997 is not subjected to the same full-length sulphuric treatment.

There is widespread feeling that the Tories should have recovered by now. But as they of all people in their Thatcher high summer would have said: nothing is guaranteed, nothing is fair, nothing comes to those who merely wish. Now the unfairnesses of life are happening to them. It may of course be, as one MP hoped in 1994, "all right on the night". The same man said recently that if MPs had known how awful defeat would be, they would have acted differently. Possibly. The greater likelihood is that the cruel curse of Major's steal in 1992 hung most damagingly over the Tories themselves; they simply could not believe thereafter that their good fortunes could ever end. The macabre joke for them is that having endured the last parliament, the current one is being frittered, month by agonising month, in exactly the same way. Only now they are in opposition: no control over the election date; no opportunities for a late headline- grabbing tax cut; no chance, even - dare it be said - to reflate the economy, as they quietly did in 1982-83 to ensure their landslide. Far more likely that Mr Hague risks straightforward defenestration, unmourned, forever the Michael Dukakis of British politics.

Few recent developments have favoured the Tories. Their inability (one- off Euro-quirk apart) to make this parliament even a vaguely genuine two-horse race is destroying interest in the contest itself. Turnouts are in well-publicised decline. One in seven voters would have election coverage barred from the airwaves completely. Most damagingly of all for a party looking to the future, teenagers daring to be interested in politics are becoming even more sheepish among their peers than when even Mr Hague was young.

He would be advised to use these hushed August weeks pondering this most colourful but strangely plausible of the many current attacks on his well- being. The cover depicts Mr Blair. It could easily portray instead a ferociously well-educated young Tory leader going nowhere, his head in his hands. Unless something completely unexpected happens, few would find such an amendment in design even slightly out of place.