Leading Article: Both fighting fit ... but who will slip up?

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The Independent Online
So, we emerge from the party conference season, heading into a long drawn-out election campaign, with Tony Blair way ahead in the polls, but John Major winning the recent bout on points. Mr Blair had a good conference: his set-piece speech lifted hearts, giving delegates the sense that Labour is still a party of lofty ideals and that he is pursuing office to put traditional principles into modern action. But the man who comes second to the fight gets a lift from having seen his opponent spar; John Major niftily exploited the advantage. Bournemouth was expected to prove a rock and a hard place for the Tory high command, who could offer the Euro-sceptic rank and file little more than a formula for present prevarication. In the event, however, the platform clasped hands and won the relieved applause of the party.

Earlier in the week Mr Major performed a neat trick by taking off his jacket and wowing them in the aisles. Yesterday he came across again as an unexcitable but confident Prime Minister, who compared his own at-ease posture with Mr Blair's faintly over-the-top messianic fervour the week before. By twanging the harp of his lower-middle-class background Mr Major manufactured a contrast with Mr Blair, presenting the Labour leader as remote and elitist. Of course we should absolutely distrust the caricature that one party leader draws of his opponent. That said, Mr Major knows he is playing a clever tune, because his party's pollsters are finding some voters who don't like what they see as "smarm" in Mr Blair. Mr Blair, for his part, knows that his vulnerability centres on the degree to which voters trust him to be what he says he is.

Voters insist that they are not affected by these well managed party conference rituals. The truth, though, is that the image of the parties and their leaders that emerges in commentary and news presentation from these conferences has a real effect on the public perception. In that way, the conferences matter.

They also provide the party faithful with a springboard feeling. On that level, both Labour and the Conservatives are in good order: they are both disciplined, ready and honed for battle. Underneath that smoothly veneered appearance, however, lie the risks of possible rot.

Take Labour. A large slice of its poll lead over the Tories is squishy. It is based more on discontent at the Tory record than popular affirmation of Labour values or visions. Perhaps old correlations between consumer confidence and support for the party in power are no longer as tight as they were; even so, it would be odd if the Tories picked nothing up from the burgeoning signs of economic well-being. And Labour still lacks complete conviction in key areas - on education, for example, Mr Blair's call to comprehensive arms is undermined by his own and Harriet Harman's personal parental choices.

The Tory cry of hypocrisy, however, carries little weight. Look at those frankly disgraceful passages in Mr Major's speech yesterday when he tried at one and the same time to extol opportunity, enterprise and self-help (as exemplified by the Brixton boy made good) and promise to cancel taxes on inherited wealth which represent the state's legitimate effort to level the playing field of life a little. A party genuinely interested in rewarding talent and effort would have no truck with grubby proposals to let suburban rentiers give their children an even more generous start in life than they already get. It would be rum, too, if the public bought any of Mr Major's topsy-turvy claim that foreigners all want to imitate our 1,000 years of "united" British history: Edward I built those castles in Wales for the benefit of tourists, presumably.

As for the pretence that the British Parliament is the free world's model - it would be laughable if it did not disclose how reluctant the Conservatives are to relinquish their rule within an electoral system which continues to reward a minority of voters with the choice of government. Every single country that began with a simulacrum of the Westminster parliament has now moved to make its electoral arrangements fairer and the conduct of its legislative business more efficient; the way we govern ourselves is not a model, it is a glaring international example of bad practice.

The Conservatives rejuvenated themselves this week, but only inside the conference hall. Outside, as Polly Toynbee reported yesterday, implacable forces are waging war within the party over Europe. Bournemouth as viewed through the television camera lens was a Potemkin village. The Tories' tactic towards Sir James Goldsmith and his Referendum Party seems to be to ignore him in the hope that he will eventually fade away. He won't. His incubus is here for the duration.

Bournemouth's slender basis for unity may be enough to see the Tories through to the polls. It may not. Unless Europe explodes underneath them, the fight with Labour will be close, and deserves to be. For all the allegations by world-weary commentators that the parties have become too much alike, we emerge from this past two weeks with real alternatives of policy and principles - with genuinely different visions of Britain that will now be placed before us. The ring is clear. Seconds away.

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