Tories fighting a phantom enemy as poll draws near

`Time for a change' factor after 18 years in power seen as major campaign challenge
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The "phantom enemy" which the Government is fighting in the general election is the fact that the Tories have been in power for 18 years, the Prime Minister said yesterday.

John Major shared the view of many ministers that the Conservatives' biggest challenge in the election will be overcoming the public mood that it is "time for a change" after four successive terms of office.

Asked why the Tories could not get their act together, Mr Major said on BBC Radio Five: "Eighteen years is the principle problem." He added: "The difficulty we have at the moment is not with the state of the country - it's patently growing, you can see that with the growth in the economy and the fall in unemployment.

"But when you have been in government for 18 years you are fighting in a sense a phantom enemy and I think that is a bigger problem for us than any other."

Ministers privately believe the longevity factor is one reason why the upturn in the economy - hailed by the Chancellor, Kenneth Clark, last Monday night - is failing to feed through into the "feel-good factor" for the Tories and close Labour's lead in the opinion polls.

As the Prime Minister handled questions in a 45-minute phone-in programme, Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party Chairman, unveiled a new Tory campaign poster to replace the Tory lion shedding red tears, which is regarded as a failure.

The new poster attempts to hit at alleged Labour spending figures, depicting Tony Blair studying a bill for pounds 30bn. The slogan, "Tony & Bill", may leave voters as bemused as the lion posters did. Conservative Central Office sources said it was not poking fun at Labour's attempts to ape some of the campaign techniques of the United States President, Bill Clinton.

Mr Major defended the Tories' negative campaigning as a success, and he told one sympathiser that it was important to point out the risks to the electorate, which tended to think that as the economy was doing well, it was safe to vote Labour.

The Prime Minister also left little doubt that 1 May would be the election date. "There is a fair expectation. I think I will announce it in the normal constitutional way." He fell silent when pressed to say it would be 1 May.

He refused to be irritated, by last weekend's gaffe by Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, which reopened the row over the European single currency."He made a mistake. He's human, as we all are ... We all make mistakes. I make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes from time to time," said Mr Major.

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