If only we could cheer up Mr Howard

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The Independent Online

More and more, in the past few weeks, I have been reminded of the general election of 1970. Labour was expected to win, not as handsomely as it had at the previous election, but comfortably enough. Had not Harold Wilson declared that Labour was now the natural party of government? Few felt disposed to argue with him, even though trust in him had been nastily dented by the devaluation a few years previously. He was still looked upon as a worker of wonders: all the more so because his Conservative opponent was widely seen as awkward and out of touch.

More and more, in the past few weeks, I have been reminded of the general election of 1970. Labour was expected to win, not as handsomely as it had at the previous election, but comfortably enough. Had not Harold Wilson declared that Labour was now the natural party of government? Few felt disposed to argue with him, even though trust in him had been nastily dented by the devaluation a few years previously. He was still looked upon as a worker of wonders: all the more so because his Conservative opponent was widely seen as awkward and out of touch.

Marcia Williams, later Lady Falkender - the Alastair Campbell of her day - advised Wilson to make capital out of his popular appeal: to refrain from making speeches on party policy and instead to move among the common people. And so he did, though the people responded with an outbreak of egg-throwing on the part of the sporting element.

Sport also played its part in the then Prime Minister's informal speeches. England were playing in the World Cup. Four years previously they had won it outright. Wilson, uninvited, had appeared afterwards with the team on their hotel balcony. This accounted for one of the persistent myths of British politics in the last century: that Wilson had won the 1966 election on the back of England's victory at Wembley. In fact the election had taken place in March, well before the cup in the summer.

The 1970 election was different. Wilson often exhorted his audiences to support "the lads". Alas, it was no good. The lads were knocked out of the competition. The main reason why the election was held in 1970 rather than in 1971 was that the introduction of decimalisation in February 1971 would, it was thought, be unpopular. But the World Cup was certainly no disincentive to holding the election in summer 1970. Unhappily it went a bit wrong.

On the face of it, Mr Tony Blair is taking no comparable risk with the wedding of Prince Charles on 8 April. There is no quarter-final from which to be eliminated. Neither the happy bridegroom nor the blushing bride is going to fail to turn up. "A princely marriage," Walter Bagehot wrote, "is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind."

It is doubtful, however, whether the event at Windsor will arouse the same popular feeling as the marriage at St Paul's which will have taken place 24 years previously. It looks like being something of a hole-in-corner affair, as is often the way with second marriages. And it may be that we are less innocent than we were. Perhaps the bonus for Mr Blair is not as substantial as some commentators have supposed.

Indeed, there may be trouble in store. It does not seem to me, for example, that the Royal Family can be allowed to fool around with names and titles as the fancy takes them, for all the world as if they were white-collar criminals setting up a bogus company in the Bahamas. Thus the woman who marries the Prince of Wales is, inevitably, the Princess of Wales. The woman who is married to the heir to the throne becomes Queen on his accession. It may be unfair to the male sex that the man who is married to the Queen does not become King, but that happens to be the law.

This is what the abdication crisis was about, where the King's friends were prepared to contemplate a morganatic marriage, but Stanley Baldwin and the Church of England were having none of it. If the law is unsatisfactory, it can be changed by Act of Parliament. This would reactivate the whole question of the monarchy, which is something Mr Blair and, for that matter, the monarchy do not want to happen at this stage or, perhaps, at any stage of the proceedings. Accordingly, the royal wedding may turn out to be more Mr Blair's World Cup.

In one respect, Mr Blair has gone further than Wilson in trying to make a direct appeal to the people. For the election, he has abolished morning press conferences. My guess is, however, that they will soon be back, either in the parts of the country which the Prime Minister is visiting or, as at previous recent elections, in London, with the leader going off for the day immediately afterwards.

Wilson, who valued the press as highly as the present Prime Minister does, held his 1970 conferences in a Westminster parish hall because some rebuilding was going on in Transport House. This lent an air of verisimilitude to the exchanges, as if we were engaging in local politics. One morning he asked whether anyone could remember a single election which had been won by a party whose leader was trailing behind it in the polls. Of course, no one could. And Edward Heath duly went on to win.

Oddly, perhaps, Mr Blair is not, by most accounts, nearly as confident as Wilson. But then, the Conservatives are even less sure of themselves than they were when they won so unexpectedly in 1970. The Government's new policy on immigration and asylum was, for instance, a great triumph for Mr Michael Howard - not least because the Government conflated the two subjects in the same disreputable way as the Opposition and the cheap press. It may not have been a very noble or edifying success, but Mr Howard did succeed in alarming Mr Blair, causing him to be beastly not only to Johnny Foreigner but to Mr Charles Clarke as well. And yet Mr Howard seems incapable of taking the credit, if that is the word.

It is the same story with the release of the papers, or some of them, dealing with out exit from the exchange-rate mechanism in 1992. As far as I know, the request for release was made by the Financial Times. It seems a little unjust to blame the Government, the Labour Party or even Mr Campbell for the dirty tricks, dark deeds, personal attacks and other sins and wickednesses of which they were freely accused last week. Instead of crying "It's not fair", the Conservatives would have done better to point out that they had a good story to tell.

Our ejection from the ERM led to four years of prosperity under Mr Kenneth Clarke at the Treasury. Mr Gordon Brown benefited from Mr Clarke (I am putting this as a Tory ought to be expressing it) and is now in the process of dissipating his inheritance. But the Tories seem to be ashamed of their most recent period in government. In 1992 they won, even though we had not yet recovered from a recession. In 1997 they lost, when most people were better off. This seems to argue that it is not just the economy which wins or loses elections.

In 1970, similarly, the voters were not badly off, as Roy Jenkins would say when he was attacked for his omission to fabricate the traditional pre-election boom. But the Prime Minister was distrusted. There might be something there for the Tories of today, if only they were capable of being cheered up.

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