Leading Article: A stench they can no longer smell

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For a party so often cited as the best in the world at securing election, leaving aside the polling antics of certain dictators - not the same thing at all - the Conservatives have been puzzlingly off their game these last five years. Council elections, European elections and by-elections have been fought with little conviction and less success. Of the current campaign, the least said the better. But all this cannot simply be blamed on Brian Mawhinney's testiness, or bad presentations involving cans of baked beans. More important, the Conservatives have lost their skill at the cover-up.

Last year, their smoothing away of the Scott Report was admired, by the more worldly students of politics, as a masterpiece of the genre. Yet that sly day spent arguing, in effect, that black was white, was only the last stage in a long and counter-productive delaying action against the report. Every obstruction and denial drew attention to the Government's cynicism, and shunted the revelations closer to the election. A sharper prime minister would have let the truth slip out in 1995; by this year no one would have been able to tell a machine tool from a secretly altered export rule. Planning beyond the next day's newspapers has been lacking elsewhere, too: in the retention of Douglas Hogg, barking his way through the BSE scandal; in Michael Howard's refusal to admit the smallest wrong; in John Major and Michael Heseltine's aggressive support for an MP in receipt of envelopes stuffed with pounds 50 notes. Neil Hamilton, of similar pedigree, continues to parade his innocence.

The Conservatives have ensured that every bad odour trails them right into the polling halls. There is a plain reason why: the Government does not think it smells. Eighteen years of ministerial cars, of muffling carpets and fawning tycoons, of closed-off thought masquerading as ideology, have all convinced the Conservatives that they are right. Always. Every criticism is, in Mr Major's words, "junk", to be discredited as self-serving and ignored. In this, as in so many of his "moderate" government's policies, the terrible hubris of Margaret Thatcher's final years struts on.

Labour must be chuckling. It's easier winning on own goals. And once they have, they won't let their MPs get carried away, or forget to sack them if they do. Of course not. Except that, on 2 May, the party may wake up with an almost unprecedented parliamentary majority, as well as more local councillors than ever before - in possession of the full unreformed powers of the state for the first time in two decades. It is true that no Labour MP has been found taking money to plant Commons questions; most of them - unworldly fools - do not even have financial interests outside Parliament. Despite Tony Blair's efforts, the party may never be quite as comfortable in the corporate boardrooms as the Conservatives. But Labour's heartlands, such as Newcastle and Glasgow, have known temptation before. To rephrase Lord Acton: power tends to corrupt and one-party power corrupts one party.