Election '97: Anyone found the missing piece?

'Major's merchandisers were slashing prices, another unmistakable omen. I bought this puzzle to remember him by'
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Indy Politics
Maybe it's a variant of the Stockholm syndrome, but the more time one spends on the Tory battlebus, the more the campaign becomes your campaign. You get drunk, you get tired, you get tunnel vision. The Prime Minister becomes a giant in your mind while the other chap recedes into the remote peripheries, a tiny figure on late-night newscasts in small- town bars whose names you can barely remember, trying desperately to appear passionate, committed and he-manly and only making himself ridiculous in the process.

Your candidate, on the other hand, is the sturdy warhorse of honesty and decency, waging a spirited battle against almost certain annihilation. "Don't believe the pap they're feeding you," he cries to the market square of Perth, Scotland. "New Labour is a party with no principles, only marketing advisers. They'll do anything to get elected. Hands up anyone who can name five things they really believe in." Dead silence. An ominous moment for Labour, possibly.

All of which might begin to explain why nobody on the the Tory battlebus is truly shaken when word reaches us of the Guardian's impending "poll bombshell" - a narrowing of the Labour's lead from 18 points to five. Suddenly the hacks come alive again. If the ground has shifted, we must explain it, and here, for what it's worth, is my take.

It was all a plot, I think, a daring gamble that began, as far as one could gather, in the Prime Minister's mind during a sleepless night on 15 April. His campaign was dead in the water, holed beneath the waterline by Euro-borers. Heroic measures were called for, and in the wee small hours, it came to him: he would turn his party's bloody divisions into virtue by opening his heart to the nation. He telephoned his press secretary at dawn, advising her that he had decided to tear up the script and proceed on instinct. Three hours later he was doing just that, facing the cameras with hand on heart, sharing his pain and confusion on the single currency matter.

It was, he said, "the single most important decision that any government has been asked to make for generations". A botched unification might mean economic catastrophe, not to mention loss of sovereignty. On the other hand, the consequences of staying out might be even more unpleasant for Britain: a haemorrhage of jobs, power and money to the mainland. It struck the outsider as a lucid summation of a very thorny conundrum, and it ended with a question: "Can anyone put their hand to their heart and say they know what the outcome might be?"

This was suicidally brave, the Prime Minister admitting in the midst of an election campaign that he was beset by howling ambiguities on the most critical issue of the era. Blair smelled blood, and stepped in to administer the coup de grace: the Prime Minister had been reduced to "a laughing stock", his party now a leaderless "rabble". Alas, poor Tony, he seemed to have spoken too soon. If the Guardian poll was to be believed, Major had concentrated the nation's mind, and young Tony's positions on Europe had been found a bit lite.

Not that this seemed to bring much joy to our candidate. His demeanour was as grey and sombre as the skies the next morning. He sat at the table, deep in thought, staring at his hands. Some insisted he was thinking: Oh, shit, I really might win this and be condemned to five more years of torment and humiliation. Others felt it more likely that he was in mourning for the England cricketing legend, Denis Compton, who had ended his innings overnight. Maybe he'd just realised that this was the moment of destiny, and that if his campaign was to go anywhere, it was now or never.

As the day unfolded, the Tory buses certainly seemed to have the wind behind them. There were several useful stories in the morning papers: Argies rubbing their hands gleefully in anticipation of a Blair victory, Labour cringing over the impending leak of its War Book by the Tories. Lord Cranborne described the mood aboard the high command's blue and white battlebus as one of mild levity. "An occasional glass of wine is taken," he intoned. "It is not unknown for jokes to be cracked."

And then, around three o'clock, our gracious spin doctor comes down the aisle, handing out advance copies of tonight's speech, which we have been primed to think of as a last-ditch attempt to crank the Tory campaign up to victory velocity. And lo: it's a masterpiece. The issues are Europe and the threat of Scottish secession, but the subtext is Blair, Blair, Blair, "the young mastermind, controlled by pollsters and focus groups unaccountable, unseen, unnamed", twisting like a sunflower in search of approval, and willing to go to almost any lengths to get it.

The unspoken line is, this little shit is going to destroy Great Britain by pandering to Scottish separatists and surrendering sovereignty to Brussels, and Major's the only one who can stop him. The critical soundbite has been italicised for our benefit: "I appeal to you, don't allow whatever doubts you may have had about the Conservative Party weigh with you when the future of the UK may be at stake. Think about it. Think seriously. Think again. Look in my eyes and know this: I will always deal fair and true by this great nation."

Granted, it lacks the snap of "Where's the beef?" or "Read my lips", but for a grey man with square spectacles, this is potentially the soundbite of destiny, perfectly pitched and perfectly in character. Cellphones are whipped out, the nation's electronic newsdesks alerted to expect a real story. We seem to be hurtling towards a defining moment. The press starts wringing its hands and reliving the "nightmare" of 1992. The Sunday Times enumerates the number of times Major's already returned from the political dead. The Sunday Telegraph confesses that it has long sensed this was inevitable. Inspired, I nip into a bookies, lay a tenner on Major, and spend the rest of the trip scribbling nonsense about "moments of destiny" in my notebook.

If this were a movie, the sad, majestic strains of Sir Granville Bantock's Celtic Symphony would now well on the soundtrack, and we'd mix to the usual crowd of purple rinses and bald pates, awaiting His arrival in a vast auditorium in Aberdeen. Honest John strides on stage, Bantock dies away, and a Tory spokesman turns to me and says: "How's your shorthand?" The Prime Minister has apparently decided to abandon his text and speak from the heart again - fateful mistake, it turns out, because his heart is brimming this evening with grand themes: the true nature of the great Conservative mission, the manifold ways in which it has added to the sum of light in these islands, and the humiliating dumping it now faces.

"Does it matter?" he plaintively asks. It does indeed, but the explanation is a long-winded one, requiring an interminable excursion into Scottish issues. The audience starts fidgeting. The hacks put their notebooks away. Major's partisans always say: what you see is what you get, and here he was, a decent, honest man, but a little on the dull side, not quite the Churchill of his own imaginings. By the time the speech ended, he'd lost his audience, the illusion of momentum had vanished, and I was writing off my bet. The soundbite of destiny had gone unspoken. Hacks were screaming betrayal and scrambling to file new stories. The nation had long since yawned and changed channels. I walked out feeling sad and deflated, and not just on account of my rash little wager.

I have little grasp of the encrustations of dislike that seem to have dragged Major's campaign down from the start, the barnacles of Poll Tax and arrogance, negative equity and sleaze, but one thing does seem quite clear to me: the world used to laugh at the toothless British lion, mangy and useless, but we don't laugh much any more. You've become one of the most admired countries on the planet, and at least some of it is the incumbent's doing. I would have liked to see him draw some blood on his way to political oblivion.

In the foyer, all manner of John Major T-shirts and mugs were on sale, along with a rather marvellous jigsaw puzzle of the PM and his demure missus, such nice, decent people, perched on a bench in front of a Gainsborough painting. The merchandisers were slashing their prices, another unmistakable omen. I bought two, to remember him by.