Go early, go negative

The Tories began it, Labour will respond. This will be a dirty election
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If the Tories are yet to confound the dire predictions of defeat by pollsters and media chatterers, and, privately, by quite a few politicians in their own ranks, then this summer will be seen as a turning point. First, because this may turn out to have been the moment when the Conservatives showed the first, faint, flickering signs of a political recovery. And, second, because Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman, took a gamble by launching a negative campaign against Labour some four months earlier than the party had originally planned, and against the advice of some - though not all - of his most senior outside advisers. If the Tories fail to win a fifth term, that decision will become, in the inevitable orgy of recrimination, just another excuse for the failure - whether it made any difference or not. But if they win, Dr Mawhinney will be carried shoulder-high in triumph through Smith Square for what will be seen as almost supernatural foresight.

First, the "recovery" - if that's what it is. Every hopeful sign for the Tories has to be prefaced by the proviso, boring to repeat, that the Tories are still in their longest, deepest political trough ever. The last public opinion poll, MORI for the Times last week, showed the Tories holding only half of the four-point improvement they made in June - almost certainly in part because England was doing well in Euro 96 when the fieldwork was done. And it left the Conservatives at 29 per cent and Labour at 53. Yesterday's superficially cheering survey, for James Capel, of 1,000 electors who voted Tory in 1992, was treated cautiously, even by Tory strategists. True, it shows 79 per cent of those who have made a clear decision would vote Tory again - a larger proportion than at any time since April 1995. But even the James Capel figures point to a daunting 20 per cent or, if replicated nationally, some 2.8 million, who haven't "come home." If this is a recovery, it is painfully slow.

That doesn't mean that the omens are uniformly catastrophic for the Tories. Every Conservative expert, from Maurice Saatchi down, knows that one of the most worrying deficits for the Tories in this Parliament has been the failure of growing economic optimism to translate into political support for the Government. All the polling data suggests that it is a myth, though a persistent one, that electors are naturally more inclined to vote Labour when the economy is booming because they feel they can afford to do so. On the contrary, before each of the last three elections there was a close correlation between electors feeling better about their economic prospects and their desire to vote Conservative. This time that correlation has been missing - almost certainly because of the massive loss of trust in its capacity to manage the economy the Government suffered in the late summer and autumn of 1992, culminating in the humiliation of Black Wednesday. So it may be significant that for the first time since then, last week's MORI poll shows the Tories regaining their traditional, pre-1992 position ahead of Labour in the ratings on management of the economy. Secondly, Labour strategists admit that there has been a firming up of Tory support among 1992 Conservative voters who have flirted with not voting for another party but were - according to those same Labour strategists - never really likely to do so in a general election. As a direct result of this shift, the Tories are planning a new "I'm coming home" campaign in the regions. On his tours of the country, Tony Blair will continue to parade groups of disenchanted ex-Tories saying they will vote Labour. Now we can expect to see the Tories playing him at his own game, and showing off voters who were disaffected but have returned to the fold.

Thirdly,Michael Howard may be a mega-flop with the liberal intelligentsia, but he has wrested back the Tories' lead on law and order for the first time since May 1994.

These factors haven't yet significantly dented Labour's overall lead, but Tory election planners insist that they are the "building blocks" for doing so. It is too early to say whether Mawhinney's decision to unveil the "New Labour, New Danger" slogan has been a help. The Tories were always going to go negative, but the original plan had been to wait until September. Mawhinney overturned that for two reasons: first, to concentrate the minds of his internally warring party on the common enemy for a change; and second, because of a belief that Blair was being allowed to drive home his message that Labour was not a tax-and-spend party without facing any conspicuous challenge. The result was M and C Saatchi's blood-curdling party political broadcast insisting that Labour would put taxes up and, in an unmistakeable lift from the US Republicans' notorious 1988 anti- Dukakis commercial, shamelessly implying that Labour would open the jails to let violent criminals out. At least one ministerial adviser has complained that the broadcast gave his nine-year-old nephew nightmares. More to the point, the move prompted Peter Mandelson and his fellow Labour election- planners to raise an extra pounds 500,000 and bring forward their own - and equally formidable - counter-campaign on the theme: "Same Old Tories, Same Old Lies."

It was some time before Mandelson was convinced that it was worth it; in campaigning lore you should try not to lend credibility to your opponents' campaign by explicitly attacking it. But the imperative of "rebuttal" won out. If the Tories have learnt from the Bush 1988 campaign - and some of the Republican failures of 1992 - then rebuttal is the lesson that Labour has learnt from the Clinton campaign. Gordon Brown and Mandelson - who held a special showing for his staff last week of War Room, a documentary on the Clinton campaign - held a press conference straight after the broadcast to challenge each of the claims made in it. But they also decided that whatever the deficiencies of the Tory campaign, it was worth launching last week a full-scale "counter-negative" campaign which, like "New Labour, New Danger," will run off and on until the election.

In the dream scenario for the Tories, union strife and frayed unity in the Labour Party will narrow a poll lead which everyone anyway believes is wider than the actual margin between the two parties.

The Tories also have one strength, which is that at front-bench level they are, for all their deep ideological differences, better at sticking to agreed campaign themes. Some senior Labour front-benchers continue to exasperate Blair's lieutenants by going "off message," as the campaign jargon has it. It cannot be repeated too often that the Tories would have to defy history to close the current gap. But when Tony Blair repeatedly warns his party against complacency, it is more than ritual. He knows that the fat lady has not yet sung.