Tony Blair shocked the nation yesterday by revealing the dark secret that is the Conservative strategy for stealing the general election. You could almost hear the synchronised slap as thousands of listeners to the Today programme smote their foreheads and exclaimed: "So that's it! That is Michael Howard's dastardly plot!" A fiendishly clever plot it is too, as the Prime Minister explained it. Howard's plan is for him to pretend that he is going to lose the election. "The Conservative strategy is to say: 'Oh, we're not actually looking for an election win - we're looking just to reduce the majority,'" Blair explained. "That is a strategy designed to get the Conservatives in through the back door."
This is known as the X-Factor ploy. It will be recognised by those of us who watched this show under the impression it was part of Charles Falconer's civic education programme to explain how Britain's 18th-century voting system works. Some of the promoters of the acts in the talent show provoked their fellow promoters into making hurtful and personal attacks on their performers. This seemed to encourage the audience at home to cast huge sympathy votes by telephone for the maligned acts. Howard's cunning plan is obviously to trick so many voters into casting sympathy votes for the Tories in May that he unexpectedly emerges as the victor - just as the modestly talented Steve Brookstein emerged as the winner of the X Factor and is now number one in the pop charts.
It is a cunning plan worthy of Baldrick, the anti-hero of Blackadder. In fact, it probably is Baldrick's cunning plan, given that Baldrick, aka Tony Robinson, is currently a member of Labour's national executive committee. But Howard has added a few clever touches of his own.
Particularly enjoyable is the realism of his presentation of himself and his party as an incompetent shower incapable of winning a raffle if they held the only ticket. Thus, when Labour realised that the south Asian tsunami had washed away its fabled media "grid" for planning the long election campaign and cancelled its New Year advertising campaign, the Tories couldn't decide whether or not to copy Labour by cancelling their manifesto launch. So they copied the wrong bit of the Labour Party and chose the third way. They launched the foreword to their manifesto and said the rest would be published in instalments to "maximise publicity" over the next few weeks.
It came as something of a surprise to discover that the manifesto was not entitled The Worst of Both Worlds. In fact, the title turned out to be The Forgotten Majority - another stratagem of the master plan to convince innocent voters that the Conservatives do not have a chance. It is a title, and a theme, of such familiarity and banality that it will almost certainly be forgotten, probably even by the Conservative Party, by the time the next instalment is out. At least when Bill Clinton used "the forgotten middle class" in 1992, it fitted with the rest of his New Democrat message.
In the foreword, Howard has some good lines about how "the decline of responsibility and the proliferation of so-called 'human rights' have left us in a moral quagmire", but it doesn't connect with policies. Apart from promising to lower taxes "when we can", one of the few policies in the foreword is: "I will stop party political spin doctors issuing orders to civil servants." Well, that will put the country on a different track.
Hence the master stroke: Howard's announcement on the Today programme on Tuesday that he would stay as party leader if the Tories lost: "If my party want me to do that and I think I can continue to make a contribution, yes I will." Wait a minute, many people must have thought, that's not the right answer. The politician is supposed to laugh gently at that point and tease the presenter for asking such a silly question before declaring that he or she does not expect to lose. More obsessive Howard-watchers noticed that he gave the "wrong answer" to a similar question at the time of the local and European elections in June last year. Asked what would happen if he did not win the general election, he said: "Then there are a huge range of possibilities."
Sadly, in neither case was Howard motivated exclusively by the desire to promote a more mature political discourse in which politicians could accept the obvious in media interviews. But his other motives are not ignoble either. Among them, I suspect he feels a sense of responsibility towards his party. He knows the last thing it needs in the event of electoral defeat is an immediate leadership election under its current strange rules under which MPs select two candidates and the party members choose the less suitable one.
But Howard, who took the job on the principle that he was more competent than the bloke who was elected by that crazy system and that you never know what might turn up, has a realistic view of the Tories chances in five months' time. So does Blair, whose warning yesterday against the "back door" strategy was not directed at the threat from the Tories at all. The Prime Minister knows perfectly well that the Conservative Party - 12 years after the ERM road crash that broke it - is still in intensive care.
The real target of Blair's apparently routine warning against complacency in his own party's ranks was not even mentioned in his interview yesterday. The clue came when he said the outcome of the election would be decided by the British people, "not the media, not me, not Michael Howard, not anyone else". Anyone else? Now, who could that be? It couldn't be Charles Kennedy, whose party is seven points higher in the opinion polls than this time in the last electoral cycle, could it?
Yes, it could. Kennedy has stolen a huge chunk of Labour's middle-class support, and is holding onto it with a textbook display of opportunism - pensions, tuition fees, council tax - that can only make Howard watch and weep. The Liberal Democrats are not going to win the election. And their chances of forcing a hung parliament may be better than a simple translation of opinion polls into seats suggests, but they are still not good. Yet they can do much more damage to Blair and his authority than the Tories can by their own efforts. Especially when the divisions between Blair, Brown and Prescott are as carelessly escalated into the public domain as they are - by Brown's people in promoting the Chancellor's "alternative manifesto" yesterday, or by Blair's person, Stephen Byers, in his counter-productive column in these pages last week.
According to Labour's "grid", this week was supposed to be the start of the election campaign, modelled on John Major's "double whammy" pre-emptive campaign on Labour's tax and spending plans in January 1992. But it has turned out to be a phoney campaign, and not just because of the unexpected disaster in the Indian Ocean, but because Blair is pretending to fight the Tories, and warn against the danger of "letting them in", while keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the enemy he dare not even name - the Liberal Democrats.
The writer is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'Reuse content