Divided between Coke and clear water

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THE PRIME Minister was looking at a press picture of Tony Blair and family recently. After a pause he said simply: 'God help them.' John Major is more aware than most of the pressures at the top, and what happens to decency and normality in the eye of the storm. But from this week on, there will be no place for queasiness at Downing Street: the new Labour man is a serious threat, and Mr Major's people are already working on how to wreck 'Bambi's' self-confidence and trash his public image.

I put it brutally: this cannot be a genteel affair. The Blairs have already had a foretaste of what is to come with an attack in the Sun on their readiness to contemplate putting their eldest son into a grant-maintained Catholic school. Mr Blair will be derided, in the fullness of time, as a hypocrite, a champagne socialist, an inexperienced nonentity. The Tory pack in sight of the fox is a fearsome spectacle.

At a more elevated level, however, the key Tory decision has already been taken - though formally it awaits the arrival of the new Conservative Party chairman at Smith Square later this week. He, or she, will be told by officials that the party must make its strategic choice, as between attacking Blair for being 'a pale blue Tory'; or for being the bland front man for raw, frightening socialism.

Both strategies have their attractions. Both have already had semi- public outings. Tarring Blair as a closet Tory picks up on his public- school education and the openly expressed doubts of Labour's left wing about the Blairite language of opportunity and choice. Were Eric Heffer alive today, he would be furiously penning a book about whether Labour was being turned into 'A Tory Party Mark II'.

So a Conservative attack along these lines would sting. It would lead to the electoral appeal: vote for us, the true and convinced Conservatives, rather than for an unconvinced version. For this reason it is known at Central Office as the 'Coke' strategy (they, not other colas, are 'the real thing').

It clearly appeals to some senior Conservatives: John Patten has accused Blair of sounding like a Tory and last week Kenneth Clarke attacked him for wanting 'Labour to wear our clothes. He is trying to turn Labour into a party of political transvestites.'

But after a sharp debate, the 'pale blue Tory' strategy, favoured by Mr Clarke, has been rejected. Mr Major told backbenchers last week he wanted to see 'clear water' between the Government and Labour.

Admitting that Labour has changed would be dangerous because it might be taken by voters as an admission that the party was safe, opening the Tories to the full force of the 'time for a change' sentiment. Instead, as during the European election campaign, the Conservatives will try to differentiate themselves. They will home in on tax, on education, on Europe. On tax, as one minister put it: 'Michael Portillo will have his calculator out every time Tony Blair opens his mouth.' This may seem a bizarre issue for Tories from the perspective of the high-tax present, but ministers insist by 1996 things will look very different.

On Europe, there is a class issue that has been too little noticed. The European Union appeals particularly to the middle and upper classes, the wine-guzzling, Brittany-holidaying folk. British nationalism is more appealing to the C2s - the very people traditionally thought to swing elections. Some senior Tories believe that Euro-enthusiastic Labour is aiming at precisely the wrong target. Could Mr Major's apparently generous readiness to let Neil Kinnock become a European Commissioner conceal a cheerily cynical ploy, branding Labour ever more indelibly the party of Brussels bureaucracy? (I only ask.)

Education policy is, however, as interesting as any. Here, the Conservatives are sure they are on to a winner. The state is funding 700,000 children in grant-maintained schools; city technology colleges; grammar schools; and, through the assisted places scheme, the private sector. Add the 500,000 at private schools and it becomes clear that around 10 per cent of families have a stake in non-comprehensive education. Spread across marginal constituencies, that's a lot of votes.

Mr Blair has been cautious about Labour's intentions, distinguishing between local management of schools and the grant- maintained sector, where he advocates more 'local' involvement - not necessarily councillors. But the issue represents a classic modernising dilemma. If he further waters down the current comprehensive policy, he will be bitterly attacked by the Labour left and the teaching unions. If he doesn't, he will be attacked by the Tories for removing choice. Clear water, not Coke.

When it comes to the man himself, senior Conservatives are more inclined to treat him like Neil Kinnock than John Smith. They had intended to go for Smith as a stolid Seventies man, in the Wilson-Callaghan style. That won't work with Blair, so they will attack him as inexperienced, and a weathervane who has changed his mind on Europe, nuclear weapons and relations with the unions.

There is also a belief on the Tory side that, while Blair is good at set-piece debates and speeches, he has slow reactions. Ministers, including Michael Howard and Mr Clarke, report back that he has a tendency to stick to the written brief rather than to listen and counter-attack quickly. That perception has led to a determination to go for Blair fiercely at Prime Minister's Questions - barracking, well-researched notes on his earlier sayings in Mr Major's hand, the usual stuff.

The rough-house in the Commons will, however, be as nothing to the mucky stuff from the East London newsrooms. A key feature of the past 12 months has been the virtual disappearance of the normally loyal Tory press, as the party bickered about Europe and the Prime Minister's abilities.

This will change. Political fashion is fast and fickle. Already media barons are arguing privately that the election is drawing closer and, with the Euro wound closing, editors must start to remember their priorites. Will it be 'Labour's Public-Schoolboy Hypocrite' by Paul Johnson, or 'Islington's Lady Macbeth'? Yes, probably.

These things are now part of political life. They go with the territory. And the Blairs are tough. There are perhaps two years in which this family will learn what it is like to try to take Downing Street from the most successful political machine in the Western world. Mr Major has no reason to feel generous. Even so, as the battle commences, 'God help them' feels right.