Gaping holes are appearing in the thick blue line

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The course of the campaign has so far resembled the history of Mr John Major's government. As William Blake saw a world in a grain of sand, so have we been able to observe the failures and follies of the last five years in only two weeks. The pattern is familiar. Indeed, it is as set, as immutable as a production of Gilbert and Sullivan by the D'Oyly Carte Opera.

First of all some bright spark at Central Office comes up with a theme thought likely to appeal to the newspapers and maybe the voters as well. In that most tedious of modern Tory phrases, ministers are instructed to "sing from the same hymn sheet" (for in the numerous memorial services I have attended over the years - they are now virtually my sole recreation - I have noticed that Conservatives cannot be bothered or are too embarrassed to sing at all unless they happen to be Welsh or Scottish). Ministers duly trot out the agreed line.

This lasts for two or three days. Then something terrible happens. Anyway there is a diversion of some kind. The theme is lost. The newspapers turn their attention to the new subject. The television news programmes, which follow the papers, do the same: "A new issue arose today..." Alas, ministers do not know what line to take because it has not been laid down by anyone. Dr Brian Mawhinney says something slightly different from Mr Michael Heseltine, while Mr Major says something else again.

Even an agreed line can rapidly change for no very clear reason. Some corrupt, erring or merely unfortunate member will enjoy the Prime Minister's "fullest confidence" and "strongest support" at one minute, only to disappear in a puff of smoke at the next, leaving behind only a slightly disagreeable smell.

So it has been for the best part of five years. And so it was last week. The chosen theme was Labour and the unions. Mr Tony Blair had been clear in New Labour, New Life for Britain that "the key elements of the trade union legislation of the 1980s - on ballots, picketing and industrial action - will stay". Nothing much to get hold of there. But wait. What is this, just down the page? "People should be free to join or not join a union. Where they do decide to join it, and where a majority vote in a ballot for it, the union should be recognised." This was turned into "Blair's Company Hit List".

The transformation represented the Conservatives' first real success of the campaign. It was something of a triumph for the people at Central Office. For they persuaded not only the Daily Telegraph but the Daily Mail to gobble up the bait and regurgitate the line about Blair's threat to our hard-won liberties. Now the Telegraph is, as Ms Anna Cox also appears to be, easy. Despite its divergence from Conservative policy in most material particulars, it is now the Government's sole remaining reliable supporter. It is, so to speak, prepared to go for a walk in the park with a minister at any time. But the Mail is made of more unyielding stuff. It does not succumb easily, or not these days. It is not supporting Labour as the Sun is doing, but neither is it the staunch ally of yesteryear. Accordingly it was something of an achievement to persuade the paper to return, however briefly, to its old ways.

For a time, it worked. Labour's apparatchiks were not only unaccountably embarrassed over what was, after all, a proposal which was both reasonable and well-advertised. It also became clear that they did not have much idea of how it would be put into practice. Eventually they came up with the notion that a High Court judge would be wheeled on to arbitrate in disputed cases of union recognition. It was not, to be honest, a very convincing performance by the People's Party or by its representatives.

Then lots of things happened. Mr Tim Smith resigned as candidate for Beaconsfield. Mr Allan Stewart, having previously resigned as candidate for Eastwood, was admitted to a lunatic asylum. And Mr Piers Merchant was urged to resign as candidate for Beckenham after the Sun had accused him of briefly enjoying the favours of Ms Cox: "having an affair" suggests an altogether more permanent arrangement than what is supposed to have happened here.

As we all know, we are odd about sex in politicians. It appears that Mr Stewart resigned because he was having an adulterous affair rather than because he met the woman concerned at a drying-out centre for alcoholics, which I should have thought more worrying. It was not always so. When Lord Palmerston fathered an illegitimate child in his eighties, Benjamin Disraeli remarked: "He will sweep the country." And so the old boy did.

The only interesting aspect of Mr Merchant's case is what he managed to talk to Ms Cox about afterwards or, for that matter, beforehand. Of the members who have recently found themselves in trouble of one kind or another, he is clearly the least blameworthy. Certainly his case is the most trivial. And yet it is on his shoulders that the full weight of Conservative disapprobation is falling: Mr Heseltine, fellow members, the Tory press, inasmuch as one any longer exists.

True, Mr Smith was also urged to make his exit not only by numerous constituency Conservatives but by central authority as well. Dr Mawhinney admitted as much on Newsnight if you listened to him carefully. But here is the curious thing: Mr Neil Hamilton, who on the admitted facts is at least as corrupt as Mr Smith, seems now to enjoy the full confidence of his superiors. Mr Heseltine goes so far as to announce that he would be delighted to speak on his behalf in his constituency, Tatton. Mr Major, for his part, maintains that it is a principle of British justice that everyone should be presumed innocent until found guilty. Why then should Mr Smith have been adjudged guilty, and pressure applied accordingly, yet not Mr Hamilton?

In any case, the concepts of "guilty" and "not guilty" do not apply to those parliamentary investigations of which Mr Smith, Mr Hamilton and others have been the subjects and which have now been placed in suspension by the constitutionally superfluous prorogation of nine days ago. The question is not whether a member has contravened the criminal law but whether he or she has behaved properly. It is a different kind of question whose determination involves evidence that would not be admissible in a criminal trial and a standard of proof that is not so onerous.

It is correct that these matters should be an issue between the parties. It is not to the credit of Mr Blair and Mr Paddy Ashdown that, apart from playing silly buggers at Tatton, they have primly refused to make them so. The evidence is that the economy is failing to become airborne for the Conservatives because of the disgust at the decline in the standards of public life under Mr Major.

Certainly standards come and go. They were lamentable under the Edwardians and were denounced by G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. They were even worse under the Lloyd George coalition, in a House which was described by Stanley Baldwin in conversation with J M Keynes as "a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war". Many Conservatives today look as if they have done very well out of the peace too.

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