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Tories declare poster war with a pounds 7m tear drop

Most of the advertising world was at play, but late into new year's eve, in the annexe of an office block in London's Golden Square, top executives were hunched over proofs of the Conservatives' latest publicity blitz. Tomorrow the fruits of their work will be unleashed and, at last, the pre-election phoney war will be in its final stage.

The Conservatives' bid to close the gap in the opinion polls will centre on an advertising campaign costing pounds 5m-pounds 7m even before the general election campaign proper begins. Four of five different posters will be unveiled in a rolling series which will run through January, beginning by attacking Labour on tax and the economy.

The image the Tories have picked is a blood-red tear drop, designed to illustrate that "It would all end in tears" if Labour comes to power. About 3,000 billboards in prime sites around the country have been booked. As one Conservative source put it: "There are going to be Tory images everywhere solidly for three weeks now."

The campaign is part of a massive financial investment by the Tories for 1997 and represents a desperate last throw of the dice. In total perhaps pounds 20m will be spent by the Conservatives this year. Although the sum seems staggering - and raises the question of who is funding the Conservative election drive - it is in line with the pounds 14m-15m estimated spend by the Tories in the 1992 campaign proper.

Nor will this week be confined to poster wars. Tomorrow the Conservatives will launch a document attacking Labour's handling of the economy and on Tuesday John Major will host a press conference to attack the Opposition.

Labour will hit back with an instant "rebuttal" of Tory charges. The Opposition believes Tory claims will be exaggerated, based on false assumptions, and that Conservative Central Office will overreach itself in painting Labour as ineffectual or profligate.

Quite how much will be spent on this orgy of campaigning remains unclear. The Opposition undoubtedly has fewer resources but also has considerable expertise; it can call on Philip Gould, a respected advertising figure who has run previous campaigns. Labour claims it will spend about pounds 1m between now and the election on their own campaign created by BMP. The Conservatives say this is a gross underestimate.

Under current proposals Labour's campaign, which will not begin until after this week, is expected to present a nightmare vision of the fifth- term Tory government. Labour says it spent between pounds 750,000 and pounds 1m on its two campaigns last year ("Same old Tories, same old lies", and "Enough is enough"), although the Tories dispute this figure too.

That is certainly small change to the Conservatives. Their advertising has been masterminded by Lord Saatchi, the veteran of Conservative advertising, but day-to-day charge of the project has fallen to Steve Hilton, a 27- year-old executive of Hungarian extraction who cut his teeth as a "library boy" (or gofer) in the Conservative research department. His habit of dressing down (he still refuses to wear a tie even to Downing Street presentations) proved helpful when he was sent to left-wing bookshops to gather material on the Opposition. Sir Tim Bell and Peter Gummer act as consultants, but the final decisions are taken by the Conservative Party chairman.

Can the best brains of Saatchi's save the Tories, or will their campaign simply plunge Britain into its dirtiest, most negative election yet? The Conservatives insist that the attack will be directed at Mr Blair's policies rather than his personality. The themes will be familiar ones: questioning Labour on trust; competence; promoting the Conservatives as the party of economic success and urging the voters not to let Labour ruin it.

Sensitive to the charge of American-style negative campaigning, this week's blitz is likely to eschew direct attacks on Mr Blair. Last year's so-called "demon eyes" campaign divided opinion in Tory ranks and a more softly-softly start may prove shrewd.

The party wants to repeat several interlocking themes to embed them in the public consciousness. As one source put it:"It's been bad, it's got better; we said we would do certain things, we've done them; Labour may have changed but it's still a threat."

Going too negative might focus debate not on the Labour Party but on the nature of the Tories' campaigning. Mr Major also has a nice-guy image to protect; although the PrimeMinister last year attacked the Labour leader over his public school education, the "honest John" tag remains.

Given half a chance, Labour will use any Tory negative campaigning as a weapon against Mr Major, linking him directly with the campaign. One Labour strategist argued: "Major is like the classic figure who hires a hitman then, when the police arrive, says `I'm sorry, I wasn't anywhere near'. He takes out the contract, someone else does the dirty work. But we know that everything that happens of this ilk is done with John Major's full agreement."

In an election where few real issues seem to divide the parties, the medium might yet be more important that the message.