Conservative hopes caught in the mire

Sleaze: Furious Major left with task of kick-starting stricken campaign as accused colleagues seek solace in their constituencies
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The Tory election strategy was blown off course yesterday by the row over sleaze, infuriating John Major and close Cabinet colleagues over the way their attempt to seize the initiative in the campaign had been wrecked.

Tory election planners had set the focus on "British excellence" as the theme of the first week of campaign- ing but it ended with the focus firmly on allegations of Tory sleaze.

Mr Major and his wife Norma toured Gatwick airport yesterday in an attempt to highlight the success of the Tory privatisation programme, with British Airways and the Gatwick Express rail service. But they could not escape questions about alleged Tory sleaze.

While the Majors may have felt like joining the holidaymakers jetting away from the elections to the sun, Labour Party advisers said the Tories have wasted the first week of the campaign by becoming mired in the sleaze row, and will be forced this weekend to rethink their strategy.

"Sleaze is playing well out in the country," said one source close to John Prescott, the deputy leader, who is on a campaign tour of Britain. "We are getting voters saying they will switch because of Tory sleaze."

Another week of sleaze allegations could leave the Tories too much ground to make up by polling day on 1 May, with the prospects of Labour's lead in the polls turning into a rout, and a landslide for Tony Blair.

That fear could lead the Tory campaign strategists to escalate their attacks on Labour next week. Labour may also refocus their own campaign to keep the Tories on the run this weekend. "We might go for the `honest John' image," said a Labour source. "Maybe John Major in a sheepskin coat."

The deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, was so angry with the accusations this week that he stormed into Downing Street and confronted startled cameramen outside Number 10 with furious denials.

However, his angry protests were in vain. The television camera had broken down and there were no reporters in Downing Street to report his outburst.

Mr Major's campaign began brightly with the Prime Minister on his soap box in Luton, but the Tory campaign organisers were privately criticised for their failure to spot potential photo-opportunity pitfalls as Mr Major was required to pose next to a racing car with no wheels, and, during a tour of a minor public school, a boy dangling from a tree.

He is learning fast, however. Mr Major avoided being caught by the photographers by a cadet giving mouth-to-mouth resucitation to a rubber doll bearing a remarkable resemblance to Mr Heseltine.

Mr Major was deeply upset by criticism of his wife, who cheerfully posed for the photographers at McLaren but was described in one report as "glum". It was pointed out that Mrs Major's mother is ill, and she may not be able to stay by her husband's side every day of the election campaign because of her family commitments.

The press pack following Mr Major was limited to two reporters yesterday for Reuters and the Press Association, as the Tory strategists sought to put Mr Major's campaign back on track, but it was impossible to shake off the mud that has been thrown in the sleaze row.

After starting defiantly in Luton, Mr Major's campaign team will look on the past 48 hours as a disastrous end to their first week on the campaign trail. One senior Tory source said they were hoping that the worst was now over, but it amounts to a wasted week, when time is short to close the gap with Labour.