Election '97 : Hope sinking as the band plays on

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The Independent Online
Perhaps John Major is about to defy all the polls and win the next election. There have been moments in the past days - unlikely moments in the bear pit of the morning press conference, a speech to Tories in a shed full of caravans in Sedgefield - when the passion of his loathing for Labour and his conviction of his own destiny as a statesman caught fire and half persuaded observers that he might be about to do the electoral equivalent of walking on water.

But last night at Manchester Velodrome reality descended. It should have been the cushiest audience of the week. These were party cannon fodder bussed in from all over the north-west, the tight pink perms and floral skirts, the gampy legs and navy blazers and frighteningly pale blue eyes of the northern Tories. These were people so docile, so obliging, that when they wrote in for tickets last Saturday they were given no inkling (for security reasons) that the speaker was going to be the Prime Minister. They might have found themselves driving hours to see ... though in this one-man campaign, who else could it have been?

On paper last night was the crescendo of Mr Major's attempt to wrest the campaign round to his own solitary, self-centred agenda. But he was tired. We were tired. The warm-up act, the mardi gras Joymakers trad jazz band, led by a hip-swaying geezer in a lilac suit and bowler hat blowing a whistle was incredibly old and tired (though discordantly modern and international in the context of today's Tories). The ageing Jeffrey Archer's skit (he came on as a "New Conservative" stealing socialist policies after 18 years of Labour rule) left us barely tepid and then the incredible shrinking man was upon us.

John Major trudged once more through the weary terrain, palpably distasteful to this audience, of his line on the single currency. He threw in the approved quota of dismal jokes. He invoked, without enthusiasm, the Europe- defying achievements of Tories against Napoleon and Hitler. He laboriously lampooned the chopping and changing of Blair. Perhaps the fault was merely, as he confessed, that "I do not have a tongue as glib or a phrase as slick as others." Or perhaps, after a week of feverish self-motivation it was merely that the terrible tepidness of the faithful hit him when he met it like a cold wave.

The motions were gone through, flags waved, hip-hips hoorayed. Blank and dry-eyed the faithful quit the hall. "He's lost weight, hasn't he." Ooh, he has lost weight."

"The trouble is, on the doorstep they say we're all the same."

Earlier in the day, John Major laid a stone in the wall of a football stadium that will be the new home for Bolton Wanderers, the phoenix of northern football.

Like yesterday's sudden eruption of ennoblement, this and Wednesday's flurry of setting and unveiling and commemorating is an understandable impulse, a final fling at the leaders of power and immortality while they are still within his reach.

The only plausible explanation for the Prime Minister's persistently sunny demeanour during the election campaign is that he is already demob happy.

In this mood he ranges the country leaving his mark of ownership on every spanking lamp post. For the one unchallengeable advantage the Tories have over Labour is that they have been in power for 18 years. Whatever has been done, has been done under them.

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