Major's secret weapon is a 'big tent' open to all

We're the people's party, say Tories; Blair's is just an Islington clique.
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The Independent Online
For once, the Conservative Party minders had hit the wrong note. Fresh from his shirt-sleeved party conference question and answer session last Wednesday, John Major - presented once more as a man of the people - was whisked backstage for a small celebration.

The occasion could not have been more alien to Mr Major's humble roots: the drink was champagne, the company included Sir George Young, amiable Cabinet toff and sixth baronet in a line going back to 1813. Few, however, would quibble with Mr Major's right to celebrate. Wearied by 17 years in government, divided over Europe and battered by sleaze allegations the Conservatives last week fought back, with something approaching a credible strategy for tackling Tony Blair's New Labour.

In Conservative minds the election battle lines are now drawn: Honest John Major versus Phoney Tony Blair, the Boy from Brixton against Islington Man. With the fanaticism of the Tory right vanquished to the conference fringe, the Conservative Party for once tried to address an audience beyond the conference hall activists, presenting itself as open and accessible. This was, in the borrowed American phrase doing the rounds of Bournemouth's bars last week, "big tent conservatism" - with room for all inside.

It has been a long time coming. Since Mr Blair's election the Conservatives have been struggling to combat the arrival of a fresh, young Labour leader taking on the left in his party. The Labour leader's strategy has, as one Tory apparatchik conceded last week, been brilliant: "It pitches Tony Blair consistenly against the likes of Arthur Scargill and Lew Adams. Blair always wins and we never get a look in on the story."

The initial Tory answer to the Blair problem was confusion. When the Labour leader was elected, some ministers argued that Labour had not really changed, others that Mr Blair was a pale imitation of a Tory.

The lack of clarity prevailed until this spring when the triumvirate in charge of Conservative election strategy - Maurice Saatchi, Sir Tim Bell and Peter Gummer - were instructed to try to cut Labour's big poll lead. First, Sir Tim masterminded a positive campaign (It Hurt, It Worked), designed to persuade people that the Tories' record was sound. Mr Saatchi favoured a more negative approach. In the summer, faced with a growing poll lead, the Tories went negative with New Labour, New Danger, demon eyes and all.

That, at least, resolved the internal strain as to how to tackle the Opposition. Labour had changed, the Tories' new advertising campaign conceded, but New Labour was just as threatening, though in a different way, as old.

Private Conservative polling discovered that some voters were reacting against Labour's slick presentation. For example, some people associated New Labour with the word "smarmy". That opened the door to last week's conference theme, with the Tories presenting themselves as the party of the working classes as opposed to the Blairite chattering classes.

The idea - now central to Tory election strategy - is to capitalise, as one Tory source put it, on "what people feel uncomfortable about with Blair". For that, read his public school education, his high-powered lawyer wife and the notion that he represents only a clique within the Labour Party - the Chianti and sun-dried tomato faction. Thus deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine spoke of "Old Labour - the Barmy Army, New Labour - the Smarmy Army".

Contrast Mr Blair, the Tories urge, with Mr Major. As one senior Tory argued: "People attach sleaze to the Tory party in general but not to John Major in particular." In an inversion of the traditional class divide between the parties - epitomised in the 1964 election battle between the 14th Earl of Home and Mr Harold Wilson - the Tories portray Mr Major as an ordinary man, who understands the average voter, and Mr Blair as a member of a remote elite.

This is where the "big tent" comes in - Tory inclusiveness against Mr Blair's supposed Islington "exclusivity". One strategist argued: "We believe there is a chance to appeal to some of those traditional Labour people who don't like New Labour's metropolitan trendiness and whom the party has left behind." These target voters include a fair sprinkling of "C2s", the skilled manual workers on whom Mrs Thatcher built her election victories of the 1980s.

A leading architect of this approach is the director of the Conservative Research Department, Daniel Finkelstein, who reminded the Prime Minister of a speech he had made at the 1990 conference. Mr Major, then Chancellor, argued that the Tory party was open to anyone. And to show just how inclusive the Tories can be, the strategists sought last week to create a seam of softer, "likeable conservatism". Mr Major and two other ministers held question and answer sessions to break down the barriers between the politicians and their audience. And, with speakers closely vetted, party managers were able to ensure a more restrained tone emanated from the conference floor, even in the law and order debate where calls for hanging and flogging are traditional. This operation was judged a success. As one Tory source put it: "If we are honest, neutral observers - like journalists or people with commercial stands in the conference hall - usually go away from party conference less likely to vote Tory than more. I don't think that's the case this year."

Leading article, page 20