The voices that may dash all hopes of reform

Mr Major is bellowing about the constitution to shore up his support. Mr Blair is talking too quietly for exactly the same reason
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How dare he? For pure political advantage, John Major has decided, entirely cynically, to go to the country on a platform of electoral gerrymandering. His plans, among the most dangerous ever put before the electorate, threaten the future of the centuries-old United Kingdom. He is imposing an undemocratic fix on the British people.

Having sold out Parliament's ancient powers to Brussels, he is now intent on forcing a choice on the Scots which he suspects and hopes will lead to the disintegration of the British Union. And in England, he is bitterly opposed to a fairer voting system for one reason, and one only - that it undermines his own party's grip on power and patronage.

He even wants to retain hereditary peers in order to enjoy for himself and his friends the comforts of office. Consistency and logic are cast aside. Has there ever been a more shameful, cynical prospectus put before the voters than this?

Readers may detect an unusually strident tone here, even a note of ranting hysteria. Well, you are right if you have. As it happens, I think Mr Major's hostility to Scottish and Welsh devolution, his support for hereditary peers and even his opposition to electoral reform are positions he holds honestly and independently of party advantage; that he has thought them through and that he is making a case which, though I disagree with it, is respectable.

The ranting tone, however, was merely the effect of applying Mr Major's own recent rhetoric to opposition policies. His hyperbole about the end of a thousand years of history has been ridiculed sufficiently already. But by accusing his opponents of lacking any motives beyond shallow party self-interest, the Prime Minister is using cheap shots.

With an important Commons debate on the constitution scheduled for tomorrow, Tory strategists ought to ask themselves whether they really want an election campaign so degraded and hysteria-tinged. And Mr Major personally might reflect that he is using a style of populist ranting which he loathes and resents when it is practised against him by the hardline anti-Europeans of the right.

So what is he on about? And, while we're at it, why do we hear so little self-confident argument about the case for electoral and political reform from Labour? The answer in both cases is about the same: pressophobia.

The Prime Minister and Mr Blair share the characteristic of being obsessed by the threats and opportunities offered by the press. Mr Major has always been much too interested in courting journalists and proprietors, and reads - though this may have changed recently - far too much about himself. Mr Blair is fascinated by the danger posed by The Sun and the Daily Mail, and by the idea of neutralising them or winning them over. If the circumstances were different, what a conversation the two men could enjoy on the subject!

At one level, of course, they are right: newspapers can have a great effect, particularly when they hunt in packs. They are as much part of the electoral process as booths and pencils. It would be foolish for any Tory leader to let the Telegraph's friendship slip through his fingers, or for any Labour one carelessly to anger those sharp little men at The Sun.

In the present case this means, for Mr Major, the need to blur the great issue where he differs from the Tory papers - European Union - with the maximum amount of flashy, posturing, British Lion-bothering, falsetto- Churchillian oom-pah-pah. His speech in Wales gave the impression that it was our last stand against the Nazi menace. If he goes on about the destruction of a thousand years of happy British history at the hands of wild-eyed Edinburgh legislators, perhaps his nationalist critics might belt up about Maastricht.

For Mr Blair, the calculations are different. His camp thinks the right- wing papers will be unimpressed by the bursts of patriotic music from No 10. Conrad Black, Vere Rothermere and Rupert Murdoch, and their editors and commentators, will keep their eyes on the bigger picture. They will tolerate, and even privately welcome, a modest period of New Labour government, while the Tory party sorts itself out before returning as a fully armed and vigorous opponent of European federalism - the real enemy.

It follows that there could be nothing more damaging to Labour's relations with the press than the admission that Mr Blair is thinking of electoral reform. Why? Because that would threaten the Tory right's chances of taking power again in the early 2000s - and perhaps ever. For the rightist press, four years of Mr Blair might be tolerable; but a radical realignment of politics in favour of the centre-left certainly would not be.

This analysis creates particular difficulties for New Labour: they want to stay close to the Liberal Democrats, who might prove important after the election, and with whom Mr Blair has been engaged in a long, private bout of deal-making about the constitution. The Lib-Dems want electoral reform above all other earthly goods. Yet it is electoral reform and the reshaping of the constitution that Mr Blair wishes not to discuss, partly in order to avoid jeopardising his better relations with right- wing papers. The Lib-Dems need him to sound radical and challenging; but if that is how he sounds to the right-wing papers, they may yet turn against him and help put Mr Major back.

This hothouse thinking, these muttered calculations in the mental corridor that connects newspaper offices and Westminster, explain why this argument about the future of Britain echoes so oddly in the clearer, brighter air outside. Mr Major is bellowing about the constitution in danger, in order to shore up his press support; Mr Blair is talking too quietly about reform, for exactly the same reason.

Tactically, both men seem to be behaving shrewdly. But are they? Knowing a fair number of rightist commentators and editors, it seems to me that they understand the games being played perfectly well: when the time comes, they will play their game, and no one else's. It does not include reforming this nation. As an unabashed enthusiast for political reform, I am worried that the combination of flag-waving hyperbole from Mr Major - however silly - and nervous throat-clearing from the other side - however sensible - may fatally damage the cause. That would be a great triumph for the Prime Minister - and he is a formidable, if ranting, campaigner still.

The Opposition has learned quite a lot from him in the past few years. Perhaps, as they prepare for today's Commons debate on the constitution they need to learn one lesson more: you cannot crusade in a whisper.