Honest John versus Tricky Tony...

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

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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.

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