Election '97: Hard questions that they don't want you to ask

All elections raise questions. Answers are more difficult to come by. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, discusses some of the issues that tight-lipped politicians are trying to avoid during the current campaign.
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When is a rising tax burden not a rising tax burden?

When it is part of Treasury efforts to reduce budget deficits and debt as part of an operation to come into line with the criteria for membership of the European single currency.

The contortions of Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Gordon Brown, his shadow, at campaign press conferences were a delight for the connoisseur of vintage political obfuscation. Neither man was willing to say that the tax burden would not rise, as planned and set out in last November's post-Budget Treasury Red Book.

Could the Labour Party survive yet another defeat?

Of course it could, and would. While pundits and Cassandras say that the party would break up, fall apart, disintegrate and die, the new Labour machine has been strengthened enormously over recent years.

While Tony Blair might not want to stay on as defeated leader, election defeat does not need to be terminal for the party at large. If, for example, the Conservatives won the election without an overall Commons majority, and they were forced to rely on the support of the Ulster Unionists, it is most unlikely that they would be able to remain in office for more than a year. The prospect of another, quick-fire election would concentrate Labour minds, keeping the party together in the hope that one more push might drive the Conservatives from office - with the electorate finally making the break with a party that had been in office, unbroken since 1979.

Labour defeat would devastate the party, given its current expectation from opinion polls, but all parties are exceedingly resilient and it is surprising how quickly they pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and start all over again.

Could the Conservative Party survive its first defeat since 1979?

There are tremendously strong forces at work in British politics, keeping the most unlikely people together in the same political parties, and the Conservatives, too, would soon be up and running again, dumping John Major, and electing a new leader to take them into the millennium.

That is not to say that if the Tories drive further to the Right, with someone like Michael Portillo as leader, some "wets" on the Left might not flake away to the Liberal Democrats or new Labour. But the bulk of the party will remain loyal. The big question is: Could it take the Conservatives as long to sort themselves out as it has taken the Labour Party - 18 years?

What happens if proportional representation is accepted under a Labour government referendum?

Then, all bets are off. The pressures that could come from proportional representation, with more seats going to the Liberal Democrats, and new parliamentary alliances being sought, could bring about greater honesty within the political parties, with the Tories accepting that it is nonsensical for people as far apart as Sir Edward Heath and Baroness Thatcher to pretend that they have anything in common. Just as nonsensical as it is for Dennis Skinner and Roy Hattersley to share prayer in the same "broad church".

Will the Tories extend the scope or rate of VAT?

When John Major was asked this question on the first Tuesday of the election campaign, he said that it would be answered by the manifesto to be published the following day. It was not. When the question was put again, he did not answer it.

When Kenneth Clarke was asked the question in a BBC radio interview, being told that Labour's Gordon Brown had ruled out an extension, he condemned "the frivolous, irresponsible style of the Labour Party. Every now and again he comes out with another tax move he won't make." When the question was put again to Mr Major, he said he had answered the question already - which he had not - and he would not add anything to that. Asked by Adam Boulton on Sky TV, he said he had no plans to do so. But he said that during the 1992 election, before he extended it to domestic fuel and power bills.

The health warning is delivered by the Conservative Campaign Guide, which says: "Successive Conservative Governments have shifted the balance from direct [income] tax towards indirect taxes - such as VAT and excise duties. This has increased personal freedom by leaving people more of the money they earn to spend or save as they choose."

When is a boom not a boom?

According to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when it is a controllable, responsible Tory boom, without the bust that followed the Tory boom of the late Eighties. But when Kenneth Clarke is asked whether that means a permanent end to recession, there is an uncomfortable shuffling of Hush Puppies and he says that, of course, we cannot escape economic cycles, but we are strong enough to ride any storm more successfully than in the past.

Stronger, for example, than we were in 1990, when Mr Major moved from the Treasury to Number 10, and it took unemployment just two years to rise by a million - and the last four years to get it back down to the level we started at when he took over.

What does Rupert Murdoch hope to get from Tony Blair?

While there is a great deal of scepticism about the importance of the claim by the Sun to have won the 1992 election for the Conservatives, there is no doubting that its current pro-Labour stance has provided Mr Blair with much relief.

The Labour leader's staff insist that no deals have been done. Indeed, as the Independent reported, a Labour Government is planning to introduce a new competition law that could stop Mr Murdoch's predatory pricing of the Times.

The question that remains is whether anything is to be done about Mr Murdoch's burgeoning television empire.

Mr Blair was thought to be referring to that in a recent New Statesman interview when he said: "It's not a question of Murdoch being too powerful. He's got a strong position and whatever authority or power he has needs to be exercised responsibly. I would like to see a situation where that happens not by legislation , but that people get a fair crack of the whip in the media."

John Major:

How many O-levels have you got?

Paddy Ashdown:

How come we can't see your eyes?

Tony Blair:

Where do you get your teeth polished?

Cherie Booth:

How much has playing the dutiful wife cost you in lost fees?

Jack Cunningham:

What do you do all day?

Neil Hamilton:

What ever happened to the brown envelopes?

Lord Parkinson:

Was the cones hotline a better idea than the Child Support Agency?

Peter Mandelson:

Ever thought of buying your own car?

Piers Merchant:

How much are drinks at the Casa Rosa in Soho?

Sir Nicholas Scott:

Will you sue Bournemouth council for uneven pavements?

John Prescott:

I suppose a gin and tonic is out of the question?

Baroness Thatcher:

Did John Major really have a problem with his wisdom tooth?

Diana, Princess of Wales:

Who's Tony Blair?

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