Election '97: MEDIA WATCH: Right-wing press damns Tory manifesto with faint praise

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The leader columns and commentators of the Tory press reacted with faint praise and considerable criticism to the Tory manifesto yesterday.

Criticism centred on the honesty of the Conservative Party tax proposals and its plans for Europe. More than one identified Chancellor Kenneth Clarke as the source of all that was wrong with the document.

The Daily Mail - said to be equivocating in its support for the party - reacted at first with praise for the big theme of the manifesto. The plan to give tax breaks to married couples who care for children or parents. This fits the Mail's family-values agenda and was hailed as "Major backs Mail campaign for the family," on Wednesday's front page. However, by yesterday the Mail's right-wing commentator, Simon Heffer, was doubtful: the tax breaks for married couples was, he said, "hardly boldness or radicalism: it is a belated recognition of what Tories are supposed to have believed in since Disraeli's day."

Heffer even tapped into Tony Blair's theme of broken Tory promises, reminding readers that Major is now haunted by promises he broke on taxation after the 1992 election.

1992 was also raised in the Tory-supporting Express: "Those who slaved to produce yesterday's document can be pleased with their work. Unfortunately, the tax betrayal threatens to make it count for nothing."

The Mail's sister paper in London, the Evening Standard, is usually a Tory ally but yesterday devoted a whole page to a leader column warning that the Conservatives' under-investment in London and its transport system should bring shame to the party.

The Times' high-Tory commentator, Lord Rees-Mogg, was sclerotic on the subject of Europe: "There will be honest, old-fashioned democratic Conservatives who, if they reach page 49, will be so sickened by the hypocrisy of that paragraph [on the supremacy of Parliament] that they will be tempted to go and vote for the Referendum Party.

Lord Rees-Mogg, in common with the Daily Telegraph, identified the hand of Kenneth Clarke in the parts of the manifesto he did not like. Mogg claimed that Mr Clarke wasn't even a Conservative. The Telegraph complained that the election would be much simpler if only the Tories would declare their opposition to a single currency, but was still was the most positive of the Tory papers in its overall support "The ups and downs of the past five years have left the Tories with a clearer sense of purpose." its leader said.

The hand the Tory press would like to see running the party is as ever one of Iron. The second half of the Daily Mail's leader column on Wednesday was turned over to the "political colossus" who towers over the election.

The implication seems to be that there would little criticism of the manifesto if Margaret Thatcher had not been "ousted in the Tory putsch of 1990."