Doctors can't spin away the new Major

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Indy Lifestyle Online
One of the more tiresome orthodoxies of this election is that it is boring because the politicians spend all their time "slagging each other off" instead of talking about the issues that "really matter". This is so much humbug. The commentators who have been trotting out this complaint exhibit an absence of effort; and, besides that, a worrying lack of imagination.

The fact is that, since the politicians began making personal attacks, the campaign has taken off, and some real issues are being discussed - notably Europe.

When people say they yearn for a discussion of issues they don't actually mean it. What they usually mean is that they would like to hear politicians commit the party to more expenditure in the area that particularly affects them. This is peculiar because it is axiomatic in this election that the majority of the electorate will not tolerate a programme of increased taxation and spending.

That was the strongest, and perhaps most ruefully articulated, stipulation that emerged from the focus groups run by the Labour strategist Philip Gould since Tony Blair became leader. New Labour soon recognised the electorate's inconsistency. Every paragraph of its manifesto was dictated accordingly - by the principle of demonstrable prudence.

We got the Labour manifesto we deserve, and now we have the campaign and spin doctors that we deserve. The reason we deserve Peter Mandelson and his cronies is that it has been necessary for Labour to persuade the electorate that it can indeed vote for a fresh and inspirational political party while being reassured that this will not threaten the two-week holiday in Florida. There is a very sophisticated process at work here: voters have made themselves available for seduction, but only with the right words, music and lighting. Consequently, the campaign on both sides became absorbed by dainty issues of presentation.

Or, at least, that was the case until John Major went to bed on Tuesday evening with the knowledge that at least two of his ministers had spoken against the single currency in their election addresses. His own spin doctors describe an epic bout with this problem long through the night before he woke on Wednesday morning convinced that he had found the way to distance himself from Labour's clinging army of policy adjusters. He tore up the programme for Wednesday, spoke passionately and without notes at the early press conference, and then hurriedly filmed that evening's party political broadcast.

This was pure politics, one man saying something and sounding as though he believed it, and challenging his opponents to argue with him. There was little finesse in it, and, nothing was left open to interpretation. After the conference the press gathered round the spin doctors out of habit, but there was, of course, no spin to be had. Major had said what he had said, and now stood there either triumphant or doomed.

The point that emerged at Thursday's and Friday's morning conferences was that Major had linked Europe to the "miracle" of the British economy. The single currency, the working time directive, the Social Chapter and the Dutch agenda for the inter-governmental conference were welded together in a unified theory of economic threat.

Whatever one's interpretation of this, it is difficult not to concede that there is at last an issue which really does matter. It is the one Major will focus on for the rest of the campaign.

New Labour's response was interesting. Its first tactic was to say it had no argument with Major's wait-and-see strategy on the single currency. It condemned his leadership abilities and then proceeded through the week's set agenda highlighting unemployment, the NHS and crime.

Labour cannot afford to engage properly on this issue. The party managers know as well as the Tories do that the polls are showing an increasing anxiety about Europe, and that, however much a loser he appears to be this weekend, John Major can apply himself to this one issue over the next 11 days, perhaps reducing the Labour lead. He almost certainly won't win, but he may well force Labour into the open while simultaneously acquiring considerable Eurosceptic credentials for himself.

The election is not boring at all, especially when you have Major's surprising political temperament suddenly pitted against New Labour's hyper-controlled party machine. New Labour will avoid doing battle for as long as possible, but it cannot spin away such an emotive issue as this, particularly after Major has meshed the defence of his economic record and the threat from Europe.

From the moment on Wednesday when Major spoke, the spin of Campaign '97 came to an end, more or less. There will be small sorties from both sides to finesse and gloss over actual intentions, but on the issue of Europe it will be no use to try to caress the electorate. Now the voters are being asked to think through the implications for themselves. That requires effort.

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