Elmer Gantry vs the Brixton boy: the gloves are off

Blair is still waiting for an apology after Major suggested on TV that the Labour leader took a free trip on Concorde
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Personal tensions between party leaders are nothing new. Neil Kinnock's dislike of Margaret Thatcher was largely political. But it impeded rather than enhanced his ability to get the better of her. Over Westland he famously failed to land the killer punch.

Kinnock once explained privately that his proper and traditionalist South Wales background inhibited him from attacking a woman, and an older woman at that. But his dislike was probably the reason why, in the confidence debate after she fell in November 1990, he failed sufficiently to exploit the Tories' discomfort by taunting them with the charge that they had sacrificed a leader better than they deserved. Kinnock almost certainly thought at the time - as Blair, interestingly, did not - that they had been right to get rid of her.

Moreover, those who were close to John Smith insist that the especially close personal relationship which he was supposed to enjoy with John Major was a bit of a Tory myth. Smith did see Major privately on several occasions, for example on the unfolding Bosnia crisis, but, it is said, emerged more often bemused than enlightened. Certainly Smith was inclined to make sure that there was an aide listening on an extension when the two leaders spoke on the telephone - as, he assumed, Major was doing, too.

So, what of the Blair-Major relationship? Well, there has certainly been scratchiness over the one issue the two parties were supposed to join forces over: Dunblane. Major has told colleagues he was angry that, the Government having agreed to postpone publication of the Cullen report until after the two party conferences, Labour made such an issue of Dunblane at Blackpool. George Robertson, however, is adamant that the agreement applied only to publication of the report - as his letter to Michael Forsyth indicates. There were already resolutions down for the conference, which anyway made it impossible to avoid debating the issue

But this wasn't all. It now turns out that there was a little retrospective friction - if not between the leaders themselves, then between their two camps - over a short interview Major gave to the BBC outside his hotel the night before he and Blair visited the stricken school in Dunblane. Officials travelling with Major were worried that, since Blair was staying in Dunblane, he might be all over the airwaves before the Prime Minister arrived. It was agreed that neither would go public until the following day. But Major's aides say he was "doorstepped" by the famously dogged Kenny McIntyre, the BBC's Scottish political editor, and didn't feel he could refuse to speak when a microphone was thrust at him. Labour were falling over themselves yesterday to say that they now accept there was no bad faith, and that Major was not in any way responsible for, or Blair remotely troubled by, other details such as the relative size of the Government- provided wreaths given to each, or Blair's place in the motorcade.

So is all really sweetness and light? Major irritated Labour by complaining to a TV executive that Blair broke faith over Dunblane. And Blair was annoyed last month by Major's suggestion on BBC TV's Breakfast with Frost that he had once been, as a backbencher, on a free Concorde trip to the US, courtesy of Ian Greer. As it happens, the all-party trip had been sanctioned by Margaret Thatcher. Blair's office thought that Major had disassociated himself from similar accusations being pressed by the backbencher David Shaw. They made it clear after the interview that Blair was expecting an apology. And there hasn't been one yet.

This sheds a welcome, if at times bewildering, light on the mechanics of relations between the men at the top. But what does it prove?

The clue to this, perhaps, is in the vigorous attempts yesterday to play down the idea of any serious personal difficulties in their relations. While Tony Blair was protesting that there were no problems in his relationship with Major, a senior Tory - for background, of course - was explaining vigorously that Major actually likes Blair.

The truth is more complicated. Blair respects Major's ability to win elections, his survivability, his resilience and personal toughness. But he believes, and will never stop saying when the occasion arises, that Major is a weak leader. Major's "Elmer Gantry" crack - to a Tory MP - is wide of the mark, since the fire and brimstone film evangelist was a lecher and a drunk. But Major does get irritated by what he sometimes sees as Blair's "holier than thou" approach to the moral agenda. Major knows that Blair is a formidable political force. But he may be a little chippy that Blair went to a private school - the same one, ironically, that spawned his own hero, Iain Macleod. And maybe some of this will help him recover an edge in the election.

But he must also surely know that he can't let it all get out of hand. The voters do care about personalities as well as issues. But there is a clear distinction between Blair attacking Major for weak leadership - or, for that matter, Major attacking Blair for being authoritarian - and petty aspersions on the character of your opponent.

Tonight, unless the US sees the biggest upset since Truman beat Dewey, a man routinely accused of serial adultery and taking dodgy foreign party donations will wipe the floor with a war hero with a generation of Senate experience behind him. It's a sobering thought. In the incestuous village that is Westminster, Major and Blair might as well get on as best they can.