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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate