Is it time for some negative campaigning?

Everything this government touches ends up in waste, fiasco and 'folie de grandeur'
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The Independent Online

There is an after-dinner game called Moriarty, which used to be popular in regimental messes and country house weekends. It involves two chaps, blindfolded, lying on the carpet, calling out "Are you there, Moriarty?"' and then trying to biff each other with a rolled-up newspaper. It could be quite fun, once the decanters had dulled the critical faculties.

There is an after-dinner game called Moriarty, which used to be popular in regimental messes and country house weekends. It involves two chaps, blindfolded, lying on the carpet, calling out "Are you there, Moriarty?"' and then trying to biff each other with a rolled-up newspaper. It could be quite fun, once the decanters had dulled the critical faculties.

Now, it is a useful way of describing the relationship between the political parties and the voters. Both the main parties devote a lot of time and money to the desire and pursuit of public opinion. They are always in the market for new refinements and sophistications which will help to win over target groups. Yet ultimately, as analysts on both sides will ruefully acknowledge, they are often doing little more than biffing about in the dark. Long gone are the days of near-80 per cent turnouts and uniform swings, when a four per cent loss in Bradford was replicated in Bournemouth. We can now expect turnout in the low 50s, plus sizeable regional variations and an election contested by three parties, not two, in which minor parties with no hope of parliamentary representation could also make trouble.

The Tories will have to devise a national campaign which accommodates two virtually separate elections; against Labour in the north and Midlands, and against the Liberal Democrats in the south and west. The Tories also have to find a rhetoric which minimises the threat from UKIP without offending the genteel middle classes.

Potential UKIP voters tend to believe that the country is going to the dogs. Traditionally, Tory candidates had strong meat to placate those who thought like that. These days, however, there is also a problem with well-off voters who worry whether the Tory party is nice enough to support. Despite Chris Patten's comments (see page 2), the number of angry Tories who think that the party is not responding to their concerns greatly exceeds the number who feel that it should do more to promote the merits of Europe. But these days, the Tories cannot afford to alienate any disaffected minority.

But the Tories have a greater strategic problem. How do they turn "less is more" into an election-winning message? Facing an apparently hopeless contract, any good bridge player will start by assuming that the vital cards are where he needs them to be. Thus it is with the Tories. They are working on the assumption that much of the public is now fed up with Tony Blair. That is their only hope, for if it turns out to be untrue, then as one senior Tory put it to me yesterday: "We are toast anyway".

If the Tories can avoid being toasted and the public is disillusioned with Mr Blair, it follows that his opponents would be foolish to imitate him with a competing brand of tele-evangelism. So at Bournemouth last week the party set out to exploit antipathy to Blairism by offering a limited schedule of pledges and promises. The aim was to project an image of competence, accountability and honesty. On the whole, it appeared to be working. Everyone stayed on message; the conference went exactly as its organisers had planned. So the first post-Bournemouth opinion polls were eagerly awaited. Mr Howard's entourage were hoping for a three or four per cent bounce. There was no bounce, just more dull flat-lining at about 30 per cent.

There was one consolation. The party has no Plan B , and it is far too late to devise one. With a little more than 200 days to polling day, this is no moment for second thoughts, or for the Tories to start claiming that they are also in the business of transforming Britain. They have got to stick to the Bournemouth themes; headmasters with more power over discipline, policemen spending less time filling in forms, hospitals eradicating the infections which should have gone out with Florence Nightingale, rather than fiddling their ministerial target returns.

This is all good stuff. But it is hard to turn it into headlines on the six o'clock news. It is never easy to make common sense sound exciting. William Hague used to talk about "Kitchen-table Conservatism", a phrase which I thought deserved a better hearing than it obtained. Forty years ago, the kitchen was deployed more effectively, but on the stage, not in politics. There was a brief vogue for kitchen-sink drama, a term which started as a pejorative which led to a theatrical phrase in which some now-forgotten plays received a respectful hearing. Whether the Tories are in the business of tables or sinks, they too will now need to find the phrases to dramatise the commonplace.

Mockery will help. The Tories are convinced that old-style, negative campaigning, which still seems to work well in the US, is no use in the UK. They are certain that it just alienates the voters from every politician and all politics. But witty deflation which had the viewers laughing would not come across as negative.

There is plenty of scope for deflation. It is fortunate for New Labour that Scottish affairs now receive little coverage south of the border. Saturday saw the opening of the Scottish Parliament; four years late, 10 times over budget, and all for a building of puffed up mediocrity. From the outset, there were lies at the heart of the project, as was a contempt for the public purse. A politician widely believed to be saintly put his name to financial estimates which he knew to be grossly dishonest; conduct which would have earned a company director a long jail sentence (no it was not Tony Blair but Donald Dewar).

Far from being unique, the Scottish Parliament is symptomatic. Everything this Government touches ends up in waste, fiasco and folie de grandeur. Tony Blair jets off to rescue Africa, and a plane has to make a 1,500 mile detour so that he can have his risotto. You can take the boy out of Islington; you cannot take Islington out of the boy.

The examples of fashionable folly multiply every time one opens a newspaper. Tristran Jones-Parry, shortly to retire as headmaster of Westminster School, would like to teach his own subject, maths, in a state school. Even while headmaster, he kept his hand in by taking classes at Westminster. Its exam results are outstanding, while many comprehensives find it almost impossible to recruit decent mathematicians. But Mr Jones-Parry has now been informed that he is not properly qualified. Perhaps he should have aimed higher and redressed a more urgent educational need; running a Government task-force to ensure that small boys are prevented from gathering conkers.

There is only one rational explanation for the behaviour of Labour's insensate bureaucracy. It may be taking such psychopathic decisions in order to make life impossible for the writers of farces - because nothing they devise for the stage could possibly be as farcical as real life in the Blair government's department of regulation.

The Conservatives must be able to make use of all this, without sounding sourly negative. Millions of people now believe that the agents of Government are never there to do anything useful, such as catching burglars, because they are too busy trying to criminalise law-abiding citizens who have not filled in the correct forms. That is the way to give colour to the politics of limited government; to link it to the need to restrain government which increasingly appears to have become insane.