The Tory underdog should be put out of its misery

Anthony Bevins talks to Tony Blair about John Major's new election strategy
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The Independent Online
The brass neck of John Major saying that he is moving the Conservative revolution into a new phase, in which the next Parliament would turn its attention to the have-nots and the inner cities, is only matched by the Tory attempt to portray themselves as the underdogs of the coming election.

After 18 years in office, the party chairman Brian Mawhinney, told the Conservative Central Council meeting in Bath on Friday: "The Conservative Party is running behind. We are not coasting to victory." But he then added: "Underdogs win just as often as favourites."

The dramatic switch in Conservative tactics comes as a reaction to Conservative soundings showing that they have lost touch and sympathy with a great swathe of the electorate. The voters apparently believe that the Tories have created a divided society, and that the people who have been turned into an underclass now pose a threat to the stability of the community at large. Mr Major recognises, at last, that something needs to be done for them too; not so much a trickle-down of crumbs from the tables of the rich, but a trickle up of security for the whole of society.

"Dignity, security, prosperity, must walk down every street in the land," he said in his Bath speech on Saturday. "And that must include the inner cities, to which we will turn our attention in the next Conservative Parliament."

But as Mr Blair says in an exclusive interview with the Independent, it is a little too late for the Conservatives now, to be turning their attention to the have-nots.

"They have spent 18 years," says the Labour leader, "creating a divided society in which a few people at the top have done extremely well; a majority are working harder to stand still; and a substantial minority have seen poverty and unemployment grow. One in five households of non-pensionable age have no wage earner at all and three million children live in families dependent on Income Support."

Mr Blair says that a month before the last election, in 1992, the Prime Minister himself had accepted that poverty should be measured by the level of Income Support. "The number on Income Support has actually risen by nearly a million since 1992, never mind 1979," says the Labour leader.

"It's not just equality of income, either. There's educational inequality, too. Nearly half of 11-year-olds failed to reach the expected standard of maths and English. A lot of people leave school now without any proper qualification at all. There's a decline in the level of apprenticeships.

"There's also inequality in health; look at the mortality rates between the wealthier and the poorer. And, of course, crime is a bigger problem in the poorer areas."

As for the idea that the Conservatives could even try to portray themselves as the underdogs of the election campaign, the Labour leader says: "The fact is that they have been the party of power for 18 years. The idea that they can come along now and say people should feel sorry for them is really bewildering. What is bewildering is the degree to which they are completely out of touch and don't understand people are fed up with them, when they are planning to privatise social services. They are still saying they are going to win. I think they do think they have a divine right to rule."

The Conservatives, in spite of their ploy to paint themselves as the underdogs, are, however, fighting the current campaign to the utmost of their ability and energy. If they are going to go down, they are going to go down fighting.

Although televised debates would grab headlines, Mr Major and Mr Blair are more interested in grabbing hands, getting votes, and going out on to the streets to talk directly to the voters who will swing the election result. While media broadcasts will play a large part in the campaign, larger than ever before, all party leaders will be addressing the regions and regional issues with tours and meetings out in the sticks - away from the metropolitan bias of Westminster.

Mr Blair says: "This campaign is not going to be some presidential exchange. It's got to be about the real questions that concern people ... We will be out very much with the people, talking about the things that matter to them, as we've been doing for the last nine months. I've done question and answer sessions all round the country, and I will carry on doing so."

Neither Mr Major nor Mr Blair believe the election result is in the bag. They both discount the opinion polls. Each believes the six-week election campaign is still there to be won or lost.