This time it's personal

The election will be fought by two men bearing grudges. Stephen Castle on a working relationship turned sour

It was March. The nation was in shock and Dunblane in stunned mourning for its murdered schoolchildren. In Downing Street, an argument was going on. Should Tony Blair, the Labour leader, be allowed to accompany Mr Major when he visited the scene of the tragedy? The precedents were unclear and for several hours Mr Major's office resisted the idea. It backed down only after a personal intervention by Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, who was adamant there should be a bi- partisan approach over Dunblane.

But when the two party leaders arrived in Scotland there were some surprises in store for the Labour leader. For one, Mr Major had brought his wife (Mr Blair had not). Mr Blair believed there was an agreement that neither leaders would give media interviews before they visited the school the following day; then up popped Mr Major late at night on BBC Scotland.

When the two men travelled to Dunblane primary school the next morning, Mr Blair found himself in the fifth car of the cavalcade, three behind the Prime Minister. Again, it took an intervention by Mr Forsyth before the Leader of the Opposition was moved up into the car carrying the Chief Constable, just behind Mr Major's. Finally, at the wreath-laying ceremony, the photographers noted a disparity in the size of the wreaths laid by Mr Major and his opposite number. The Prime Minister's was rather larger.

A conjunction of unhappy coincidences, or a series of small but calculated slights designed to show who was the real VIP? Some Scottish MPs took an even more brutal view: was this not the Prime Minister trying to make capital out of the horror of Dunblane?

Sometimes it takes a big event to crystallise personal differences hidden beneath the surface. For John Major and Tony Blair, Dunblane and its aftermath seems to have been a turning point, and things have not improved since then.

In September, at Labour's request, the publication of Lord Cullen's report on the shooting was postponed beyond the party conferences. But when a speaker representing the Dunblane Snowdrop campaign addressed the Labour gathering at Blackpool, Mr Major hit the roof. The private verdict from the Prime Minister was that an unofficial truce had been broken; Mr Blair and his allies were, he charged,completely untrustworthy.

If Mr Major and Mr Blair ever enjoyed a decent working relationship, it has now gone spectacularly sour, and it looks as though the forthcoming general election will be a political contest between two men who also have a personal grudge to settle.

WITH the exception of the wartime coalition partners, relations between prime ministers and leaders of the opposition in Britain's highly adversarial political system have rarely been easy. Harold Wilson and Edward Heath famously failed to get on; Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock were hardly close. But there is a difference between the natural tension of rivalry and personal animus, and it is the latter that has come to dominate the Major-Blair relationship.

Does it make any difference? Besides their encounters in the Commons chamber, when naturally no quarter is asked or given, prime ministers and leaders of the opposition meet frequently in other settings and sometimes need to do business together. There are public events: all three main party leaders appear together at functions such as the State Opening of Parliament and Remembrance Sunday, meet at receptions at Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, and attend state banquets and big international events together. Last year they were photographed together at the VE Day celebrations sharing a joke supposedly about Mr Major's goldfish getting sun-stroke.

But the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition also meet privately, and rather more often, to discuss issues of state on Privy Council terms. These discussions take place under strict and binding secrecy and range over sensitive issues such as security or Northern Ireland. The setting is sometimes Downing Street but more often the Prime Minister's Office through the doors behind the Speaker's Chair in the House of Commons. The frequency of these encounters remains a mystery even to staff in Downing Street; in the Prime Minister's formal diary they are listed simply as "meetings with MPs". It is on occasions such as these that relationships are forged, for better or worse.

Tony Blair is the third Labour leader with whom John Major has had to deal. According to one former Cabinet source, Neil Kinnock was never seen by Mr Major as a genuine threat, intellectually or politically. The Prime Minister always thought he would win an election against Mr Kinnock.

The relationship with Mr Smith was more balanced, and better. According to one source close to the Prime Minister, he saw Mr Smith - an experienced House of Commons hand he had known for some years - as a "great friend". This may not have been reciprocated by the Labour leader, but no one disputes that the two men would often sit sipping whisky together while discussing matters of state on Privy Council terms.

This comfortable cross-party rapport disappeared when the Labour leader died in May 1994. Since then Mr Major has referred privately to what he calls a betrayal by Labour of Mr Smith's legacy.

To Mr Major, Tony Blair was at first an unknown quantity. When he was elected Labour leader, the Prime Minister phoned a Tory colleague who had worked with him on several Commons committees. "The trouble is," Mr Major confided, "I don't know him."

Initially the new man was given the benefit of the doubt and ministers even agreed that they would not target him personally. But in those private meetings between the two men it was soon clear that the chemistry was just not there. As one Conservative source put it: "There was a perceptible worsening of relations that took place when the leader of the opposition changed. That brought about a big cooling off. With Smith they could have a drink together while discussing Privy Council business; with Blair it's rather more a straightforward briefing."

As time passed, the Labour leader's tone at the twice-weekly Question Time exchanges began to grate on Mr Major. His entourage would sometimes describe Blair interventions as "disgusting" - in a way that insiders knew reflected the Prime Minister's anger. Mr Major was thrown by his opponent's brazen confidence. One source close to the Prime Minister said: "Major thinks Blair is genuinely inexperienced and just doesn't know anything about government. Unlike John Smith who was at least a Cabinet minister, Blair doesn't realise what he doesn't know."

Private meetings happen very rarely now. And, when the three party leaders meet, there is - according to one source - usually an edge to the occasion, injected by the Prime Minister. Mr Blair gets on well with Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, but the Prime Minister has, one informed source said, a tendency to be "snide".

For his part, Mr Blair fully reciprocates Mr Major's lack of respect. He does not rate him highly as a party leader or a prime minister. "Blair has a very, very low opinion of Major," said one source. "I think he believes his own propaganda about Major."

It should, perhaps, be no surprise that they do not get on; they are very different characters. As one friend of the Labour leader put it: "Tony really does like sitting down and having an intellectual discussion about the meaning of his project for the Labour Party. That really isn't Major's style at all."

But it runs deeper than that. Even some of John Major's Tory colleagues put the needle in the relationship down partly to chippiness on the part of a Prime Minister brought up in two rooms in Brixton. To him, Major and Blair is, as one close friend of Mr Major put it only half joking, "the story of poor boy made good meets rich toff".

Despite nearly seven years in Downing Street, the outsider in Mr Major dies hard. As the election approaches, he has increasingly played up his humble origins. At last year's Tory party conference, for example, he attacked the "fashionable" people who found it funny that his father had made garden ornaments. The "knockers and sneerers", he added, weren't "fit to wipe the boots of the risk-takers of Britain".

This year, he went further, drawing attention to Mr Blair's public school background with his mock-slogan: "New Labour, Old School Tie". From a Conservative prime minister, this was an unprecedented line of attack, but it comes from deep inside the man.

Mr Major counts several of the Conservative Party's aristocratic grandees, including Lord Cranborne, among his friends, but his closest allies have tended to be self-made men such as Lord Archer and David Mellor. His loathing of any behaviour towards him he suspects of being patronising is well documented.

According to one who has seen him in action in his constituency, Mr Major feels most at ease in surroundings like the Huntingdon Conservative Association. "It is not the county set, but people who want a comfortable house, a decent school for their children. Major's in his element there - he's absolutely brilliant with them."

Other parts of the Tory world can get on his nerves. A Conservative source said: "There are times when I've heard Major get almost Andrew Neil-esque about 'the establishment', or gentlemen's clubland. He loathes the old-school, arm-round-the-shoulder, come-to-my-club approach."

Mr Blair, educated at Fettes and Oxford, embedded in the establishment and fashionable among the chattering classes, is perhaps the antithesis of what Mr Major is about. That this man should be attacking him from the Labour benches only rubs salt in the wound.

One Tory MP said: "Major is proud of his background and of rising from where he did. Blair was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has always been comfortable. I would suggest that Major is very resentful and angry when Blair gives a sermon about the poor." Another Conservative put it more bluntly, saying that Mr Major reacts badly to a "public school lefty and 1960s hippy who knows nothing about life".

Most of all, however, the Labour leader's tendency to preachiness has got under Mr Major's skin. It is, of course, never comfortable for a Conservative be outbid in the morality stakes, but a close Major ally believes that, in this area, Mr Blair touches a very raw nerve indeed: "Major finds Blair unbelievably sanctimonious. He presents himself as a shining, perfect figure as opposed to the cynical and corrupt politicians opposite him. Meanwhile Labour is playing politics as dirtily as ever. John Major feels there is a dissonance between image and reality."

The Prime Minister has not kept this view a secret. One afternoon not long ago, after Question Time, he paid one of his occasional visits to the Commons Tea Room, where backbenchers asked him what he really thought of the Opposition leader. Responding, he did what he so often does in private conversation and took his listeners back more than 35 years. In this case he recalled an American film, Elmer Gantry, in which Burt Lancaster starred as a Bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone evangelist preacher who turned out to be a charlatan and a hypocrite. Tony Blair, said the Prime Minister, reminded him of Elmer Gantry.

PERHAPS, in a gladiatorial electoral system such as Britain's, it is asking too much to expectthe main party leaders to retain a good private relationship while slugging it out in public. And if they did, the public might find it suspect. But a pre-election race which has already featured those demon eyes superimposed on Mr Blair's face is likely to get more, rather than less, personalised given the personal climate between the two men. If it reaches a climax in a televised debate, as it may yet do, that could be quite a spectacle.

For these two men, a great deal is at stake. Neither John Major nor Tony Blair is old by the standards of their chosen profession (they are 53 and 43 respectively). Yet they are keenly aware that whoever loses the election almost certainly faces political oblivion. Given that fact, there is every prospect that their present rift will widen, rather than narrow, in the coming months.

For the voters, there is an irony in all this: that the country's two leading politicians should be so far apart at a time when their policies are closer together than ever.

Bitter words

A SHARP exchange in the Commons last week gave an indication of the personal ill-feeling between the two men:

MR BLAIR: The Prime Minister said that the [EU] beef ban would be lifted by November. Is it the position now that it will not be lifted by November, and that he cannot tell when it will be lifted? Is that not weak and ineffectual leadership? What that means is that his Government can no longer advance Britain's interests abroad, nor look after them properly at home. If we are to get leadership, direction and purpose back in Britain, let the British people decide, and let this weak and vacillating Government go.

MR MAJOR: That really was one of the most trivial series of comments - utterly trivial. This is a matter of great interest to the British agricultural industry, but the right honourable gentleman does not understand them, does not enter into any research on them, deliberately distorts what little he does know, ignores the reality and moves - as he does on his third question every Tuesday and Thursday - into a carefully pre-packaged, pre-prepared piece of irrelevant, juvenile sloganising.

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