The Tories have yet to capitalise on Labour's weakness

Many voters would like to bin the grin. Yet they are still sceptical about the Tory alternative
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The Independent Online

Today, the Conservatives publish their manifesto, with limited ambitions. David Cameron, who has been in charge of the drafting, read a lot of philosophy at Oxford, but that will not come through in the document. The aim has been to produce a short, clear text, written in a roll-up-your-sleeves tone. "If anyone wants philosophy," said one of Michael Howard's entourage, "they should read Descartes."

Today, the Conservatives publish their manifesto, with limited ambitions. David Cameron, who has been in charge of the drafting, read a lot of philosophy at Oxford, but that will not come through in the document. The aim has been to produce a short, clear text, written in a roll-up-your-sleeves tone. "If anyone wants philosophy," said one of Michael Howard's entourage, "they should read Descartes."

The Tories are satisfied with the early phase of the campaign. They have been acting like the Long Range Desert Patrol Group, the precursor of the SAS, in the months before El Alamein. Launch lightening raids: inflict maximum damage and casualties: rapidly withdraw and regroup - leaving the enemy rattled because he does not know where the next strike will come.

This is all great fun and it has boosted Tory morale. But it does not guarantee victory in the set-piece battle. There, the Tory task is still the same as the party's strategists diagnosed back in January. How do they turn Labour negatives into Tory positives? Millions of voters are disillusioned with Mr Blair. Many of them would like to bin the grin. Yet they are still sceptical about the Tory alternative.

The Conservative manifesto has been crafted with precisely those problem voters in mind. The overall message is simple. Mr Howard is promising clean hospitals, discipline in schools, secure borders and a small tax cut. Why should that be impossible to deliver, when the Government is spending over £500,000,000,000 a year?

"Delivery" had been a New Labour catch phrase. The Tories are now trying to appropriate it. Though it is easy to overstate the importance of manifestoes, it will also be easy to judge the success of the Tory one. If the idea of delivery seeps into electoral consciousness, so that Labour is on the defensive over its failures while the Tories' limited promises are getting a hearing, the manifesto will have done what was intended.

In the shorter term, Labour has made a strategic error. All the anecdotal evidence suggests that immigration and asylum are helping the Tories on the doorstep. Many canvassers report that voters are much more likely to raise those issues than any others. Labour has now tried to discredit the Tories' arguments, but not by claiming that they are immoral. They have produced a United Nations official as well as Charles Wardle, a Tory defector who used to work for Mohamed Fayed. Both men insist that the Tories' policies are impractical.

This is foolish of Labour. It enables Michael Howard to revisit immigration and asylum, in order to assure the voters that he means what he says. In a journalistic phrase, Labour has given the story legs. Moreover, if the voters are asked whether they would like Michael Howard to run immigration, or Kofi Annan and Mohamed Fayed, there will only be one answer. If Labour wants immigration and asylum to become the decisive questions in the campaign, Mr Howard will not object.

Labour had planned to move on to education. There, too, the Blairites will encounter difficulties of their own making. Eight years ago, Tony Blair said that he wanted state schools which the middle class would be happy to use. He proclaimed the slogan "Education, Education, Education". Last week he told us what he now thinks of education. His website announced that from today onwards, "Me and my colleagues will be out every day talking to the British people and our driving mission for a third term."

Whatever this vision is, it does not include grammar or syntax. Yet it is not Mr Blair's mistakes which are most objectionable. It is his patronising phoniness. Even before he spent many expensive years at Fettes and John's, Oxford, Tony Blair would not have spoken like that. He would already have been taught better, by his parents, as he and his wife would have taught their own children better. So why does he now dumb down? Because he believes that the voters are dumb. Those tempted to vote Labour should keep that in mind. They would be voting for a Prime Minister who feigns ignorance in order to maximise flattery, who expresses a double disdain for educational standards and for the electorate.

Even before last week, Tony Blair's contempt for education was on record. In Robin Cook's diaries, the PM is recorded as making a dismissive reference to Harold Wilson's sons' success in life. It was pointed out to him that one of them was a headmaster, and the other a professor at the Open University. The response was instant; "I want my kids to do better than that." The hundreds of thousands of people who are working hard in education, for limited rewards, in the hope of one day becoming headmasters or professors, should note what the education Prime Minister thinks of them.

In view of "Me and my colleagues", we should offer Labour a new slogan to replace "Education, Education, Education." It comes from a pop song, and it is already in the grammar that Mr Blair uses when talking to the voters. "We don't need no education" - because Tony Blair hopes that we are already dumb enough to vote New Labour.

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