Honest John versus Tricky Tony...

That's about the level we can expect in this campaign. Both men deserve better

Share
Related Topics
So it is to be - surprise, surprise - a ''presidential election''. John Major is his party's greatest asset and will be giving presidential press conferences, reveals Conservative Central Office. Half a mile away, in Labour's Millbank Tower, it is axiomatic that new Labour and Tony Blair are more or less the same thing.

Thus, for the next few months, numerous highly-paid and creative people will be trying to persuade the electorate that politics can be resolved into a contest between two opposite personalities. A primeval story of light and dark, protector and destroyer, will be spun. Blair or Major - the nation decides.

This is both crass and constitutionally impertinent. Yet leadership matters, hugely, and it is worth examining the psycho-politics that is breaking around us. It need not take long. There are only two basic statements being made; and they are both very basic indeed.

John Major is honest: Tony Blair is slippery.

This is perhaps the fundamental ''presidential'' Conservative message. The choice of Major's eyes in recent Tory posters, with slogans beginning ''As promised ...'' was an example of the strategists' Honest John - quiet, gutsy, straight. It plays to Major's Middle-English gawkiness. You may smile at him, is the implication; but when you do, you are smiling partly at yourself, at England's (never Britain's) faults and virtues made flesh.

Blair, meanwhile, is to be regarded as Tricky Tony, a man not quite ringing true. This connects the unknown quantity that new Labour still is, to the perception among some voters that Blair is a man who smiles too much, who is trying too hard to please and who cannot therefore be trusted.

These are potent and important messages, however crude. And yet there is no evidence to back up the distinction at all. Major has a record of saying different things to different people on Europe - understandable, given the strains in the party, but also wily behaviour, even sinuous. His rhetoric about taxes in the 1992 election was utterly confounded by his actions after it. He is a highly conscious and artful phrase-juggler - and Honest John is quite prepared to fight dirty. On the other hand he can be just as smoothly charming as the Labour leader; Major doing some serious schmoozing has to be seen to be believed.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, has been unusually frank for a leading politician. There are very important gaps to be filled in, notably on tax and voting reform. But Blair has made a fetish of promising only a modest agenda. In recent years, he hasn't changed his mind on anything important. Given his determination to promise nothing he cannot deliver, it is one of the minor mysteries of politics that this basically straightforward, open man is seen by some as shifty and untrustworthy - even ''smarmy''.

Partly, it is the venom of those who have been ruthlessly excluded by the modernisers. Leo Abse both an old socialist and an old Freudian, has been the harshest single critic of Blair's smiling image, variously describing the Labour leader as possessing ''an over-ready, winsome boy smile'', as being ''androgynous'' and practising ''the politics of perversion''. Worse still, as Abse shrewdly points out, he likes rock music.

This is silly, savage stuff which tells us more about Abse than Blair. But it is a good example of the psychological warfare that presidential- style politics can degenerate into. It is not yet a capital crime to grin; and to draw a contrast between the Prime Minister and the Labour leader on the basis of honesty versus smiling insincerity is, so far as I can see, mere hooey.

What, though, of Labour's counter-charge?

Blair is tough, and a winner: Major is weak and a loser

This is, in essence, the Blairite answer to the Tory character-assassins and is about as accurate. It is certainly true that Blair is tough, and has reformed his party more radically than many others would have dared to do. But Major is a hard case too. He has been in power for six years, managing a fissiparous and disloyal party; his personal performance in 1992 had a lot to do with the Tories' election victory then. He is, in short, a strange sort of loser.

Is Major weak in a way that Blair isn't? He certainly found press attacks horribly hurtful but to be lampooned day after day and remain cheerful - as he now can - is not something the average citizen could manage. Major possesses awesome self-control but is a very emotional man who has always been touchy about ''the mockers'' and genuinely thinks himself badly underrated. Yet the years have covered him with thick, barely penetrable emotional scar tissue and fed his basic, burning self-belief.

There is another kind of weakness. Early on in his premiership, it is true that Major gave the Tory factions on Europe the clear and damaging message that he could be successfully bullied. This did more than anything else to feed the anti-EU revolt which has dominated his premiership and is the main evidence for the weakness that Blair identifies as Major's failing.

Rightly: but would Tony Blair be very different? He has Major's example to learn from. In opposition, Blair has led ruthlessly and at times almost recklessly from the front. He brims with optimism and energy. But office and opposition are different - a Labour government will also have its factions and its dissident ministers and Blair's ability to achieve compromise may yet be as much in demand as Major's.

Blair and Major are separated, of course, by a lot - by political agendas, age and experience. But they are much more alike as political personalities than either would willingly admit. Knowing both of them at least a little, I conclude that no simple distinction between the trustworthy one and the slippery one, or the tough one and the weak one, is anything more than tawdry propaganda - the soap opera of the election hoardings.

In different ways, the two big parties are both lucky in their leaders. We should judge Blair and Major on their policies, their promises and, insofar as we can, their records. But when Conservative Central Office or the Labour spin-doctors try to sell us the 1997 election as a Manichean contest between two wildly different personalities we should reject it, with contempt, as a fraud.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Piece Dyed Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This award winning UK textile innovator specia...

Recruitment Genius: Pre-Sales Consultant / Presales Engineer / Sales Engineer

£55000 - £75000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Software House that produces ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£26000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is Europe's indust...

Recruitment Genius: Engineering Technician

£17020 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Aerospace company is looki...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Theresa May  

The Government is about to encourage landlords to discriminate against anyone with a foreign name

Samir Jeraj
 

No more big characters or Tory clowns like Boris Johnson. London desperately needs a boring mayor

Rachel Holdsworth
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen