Election '97: The Tories are giving up

... but no one's told John Major
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The Conservative election campaign began to fray at the edges yesterday, with despair setting in, public displays of anger and the battle increasingly focused on a one-man fight being waged by John Major.

With only three days before polling day and all the polls suggesting a three-figure Labour majority, the Conservatives held no press conference, the party's big- hitters were largely silent, and Brian Mawhinney, the Chairman, sent out a message to constituencies saying there was still time left to win over "millions" of undecided voters.

That was not the message given by voters to Independent reporters yesterday.

On visits to six marginal Tory constituencies, they found a distinct hardening of Labour support. In Redditch, which is 44th on the Labour hit-list, and where a win would still not give the party an overall Commons majority on a uniform national swing, several unhappy Conservative voters in a panel set up by The Independent have now swung over to Labour, after vacillating throughout the campaign.

Even more optimistic for Labour, both Cleethorpes, which could give Labour a majority of more than 30, and Watford, which could mean a 50-plus majority, look likely to fall to Labour.

Mr Blair said repeatedly: "This is not a landslide country." And Labour is keeping tight wraps round preparations for election night. However, the Royal Festival Hall has been booked for a massive party for workers and volunteers, with over 1,000 expected guests.

Mr Major last night completed a whistle-stop tour of the United Kingdom with an impromptu speech on Abingdon Green, opposite the Commons, where he warned there were "seventy-two hours left to save the Union" from Labour policies on devolution and Europe.

The enthusiasm of the audience for his performance, staged to coincide with 6pm news bulletins, was explained by the fact that at least 90 of them were counted by The Independent returning to Conservative Central Office after it ended.

The Prime Minister's appearance at Westminster meant he could have appeared on the ITV 500 programme last night - Michael Heseltine stood in for him - and prompted charges that he "chickened out" of appearing before an audience of "real people".

Mr Heseltine protested that Mr Major was in Ulster and could not have announced the visit for security reasons. Hearing a member of the audience shout, "chicken!" Mr Heseltine said: "If you think the Prime Minister going to Northern Ireland is chicken, then you haven't the faintest idea what a brave and courageous man is about."

In a BBC Panorama interview last night, Mr Major followed Mr Blair in adding another precondition to British membership of a single currency. As The Independent reported yesterday, Mr Blair believes it would not make sense for a Labour Cabinet to give the go-ahead if it believed the people would reject it in a referendum.

Mr Major indicated last night that he would himself make a prior judgement - and would not even put it to the Cabinet if he did not believe it was right to go into a single currency.

"It's right ... for me to decide," he said, "to take it to the Cabinet, to the House of Commons on a free vote of backbenchers and, then, if everybody says , 'Yes' - if I were to say, 'Yes', it is a big if - the Cabinet were to say, 'Yes', if Parliament were to say, 'Yes', then to have a referendum of the nation as a whole."

But in spite of Mr Major's defiant efforts, the Tories were dogged during the day by what Dr Mawhinney told constituency chairmen amounted to no more than "groundless tittle-tattle" about disarray in Central Office and a leadership contest already running for the replacement of Mr Major.

Both Mr Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, were pursued during the day by questions about their intentions for a leadership contest. Ladbrokes reported heavy betting on Mr Heseltine as next leader, making him 7-2 co-favourite with Michael Portillo and Michael Howard.

Peter Mandelson, Labour's campaign manager, said: "Among the settling of scores and the internecine warfare, there's an awful lot of limbering up and auditions being carried out by would-be leadership challengers."

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat, said he had been told that a "significant number" of Tories would quit the backbenches in the Commons if the party took an anti-European line after the election.