Election '97: Major stands accused of complacency

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John Major was publicly rebuked yesterday by a die-hard Tory activist who accused him of complacency and, ultimately, betrayal for leaving his party without the weapons to fight the election.

The onslaught - the more powerful because it came from someone clearly moved by her expectation of imminent defeat - was delivered on the final BBC Election Call by Margaret Curtiss, of Southampton, where the Conservatives expect to lose one marginal seat.

But Mr Major built on the alibi he had first delivered on Tuesday; that the media was obstructing his message and blocking his appeal to the voters.

No stranger to controversy, Mrs Curtiss featured in a front-page Sunday Mirror report about Southampton Tory sleaze in March. Yesterday, she cornered Mr Major with a grassroots view of her party's plight.

Accusing him of complacency, she said: "As far back as 1993, the party were well aware that the posts had changed, and yet we had minister after minister coming down to Southampton saying, 'Well, we have done it before, we can do it again'.

"You know yourself that to govern effectively, you need people not only at the top, but people on the ground floor.

"We have lost very, very many fine councillors over the years through this failure to get our message across, this utter complacency, and ultimately that means that it's a betrayal of the country, as we both know that only the Conservatives can really be truly trusted to govern the country.

"But we are going to lose tomorrow, John, because we have not got that message across, we have not woken up in time to the fact those goalposts have moved and the Labour Party have been a different animal, and that ultimately has to rest at your door."

Initially, Mr Major said he was not complacent, council seats would swing back to the Conservatives, he had delivered an economy in better shape than it had been for generations, and the general election was there to be won.

Mrs Curtiss said that while she shared his Conservative conviction, and she would be voting Conservative, fingers had not been pulled out and messages had not been delivered to the voters.

She told the Prime Minister: "You have plenty of eager soldiers on the ground floor here We have been begging for you to give us the weapons to fight. We have not had those weapons.

"We have been going on with one hand tied behind our back ... The buck has to stop somewhere and that does stop at you and I'm very sorry we're going to lose tomorrow."

Mr Major said: "There is a problem in politics these days. However, whatever politicians may say, the message the politicians get is filtered through what happens to be the story of the day. I may speak at length about the details of education policy, but if that happens not to be on the agenda of the day of the media and others, you hear very little about it.

"You hear about the squabble of the day, the disagreement of the day, the gaffe of the day, the speculation of the day, the poll of the day, but the details of how I propose to improve education, what I propose to do to the failing Labour education authorities in the next Parliament, how I propose to enshrine the welfare state, they can't encapsulate in a soundbite."

On Tuesday, Mr Major complained that his campaign had effectively been hijacked by the issue of Europe - swamping issues like health and education - in spite of the fact that he had put it at the top of his own agenda in the middle of April.

Yesterday, Mr Major suggested that he was utterly unable to manipulate the news agenda.

"I might make a 40-minute speech this morning on the welfare state," he told the Election Call audience.

"I will get one minute of it on the news, if I'm lucky, and that minute, probably, a bit that creates controversy between the parties. It'll be criticised by Tony Blair, who hasn't read it, and by Paddy Ashdown, who hasn't understood it.

"That is a real democratic problem and Margaret Curtiss put her finger on it. I'm not complaining about it. It's a rough life, politics, but that is the reality of how it is these days."