Leading article: Enough! Let the real battle be joined

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What is this election campaign about? And is there any prospect of having the real questions asked, let alone answered? Yesterday Paddy Ashdown's battle bus set off on his tour of 100 constituencies, with the Liberal Democrat leader snorting disdainfully at Labour's wheeze of the day, a plan to drag recalcitrant kids into football stadiums after school, promising them a tussle on the turf if they manage to polish off their homework. Anyone who followed Tony Blair on his day out in Sheffield would have learnt that the Labour leader likes the Spice Girls, Oasis and Blur. The best the Tories could do for most of yesterday was to wag a sorry head at Labour's plans to restore some limited rights to trade union members.

Now, readers of this paper, like anyone else, no doubt enjoy discovering that Tony Blair likes tinny, teeny bands more than grown-up ones, just as much as they enjoy peering into his living-room and admiring the ruched curtains and frilly-edged cushions. But we are a week into the election campaign (yes, you have nearly six whole weeks left to go!) and voters could be forgiven for feeling that the whole thing seems just a mite phoney.

So far the most substantial matters of comment - aside from the serious allegations of sleaze - include The Sun's decision to support Tony Blair, and the continuing palaver surrounding the on-off off-on television debate.

Is it merely coincidence that these two events are entirely media-related? Could it be that the whole business of election campaigning is self-reflexive? Politicians arrange meaningless events for reporters and broadcasters to go along and write meaninglessly about them, conveniently locking the whole campaign into a closed spiral.

Well, although you might be forgiven for thinking that, it is not entirely true. The exclusion of useful argument also has a great deal to do with the desire of these particular politicians, at this particular moment, to avoid confronting the harder questions. A few examples will suffice.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome - a momentous event in our history, and in the history of Europe. The Treaty's ambitions live on in daily form. Indeed, for the past year we have legitimately been expecting a ding-dong debate the moment the campaign began about Britain's future in Europe. How naive we were. The Conservatives desperately want to avoid discussing Europe as far as possible, since it merely highlights their divisions, and risks someone speaking out of line. Moreover, any Cabinet member uttering his or her own independent views on Europe is liable to be accused of campaigning in the post-election election for the Tory leadership.

Mr Blair, by contrast, could very easily conduct an interesting debate on Europe, and our future in it. But he would rather not, because he needs to sound sceptical with one audience (The Sun's leader writers and editors) while promising a committed European engagement to others (most of our business establishment).

Here's another example. Yesterday we reported (correctly, as will eventually become clear) that the Labour Party is considering how to close uneconomic hospitals and divert funds elsewhere in the health service. As it happens, this is an excellent plan. What happens? Chris Smith, Labour's health spokesman, responds with hot denials. Why? Because he is worried that the Tories will pounce on it. In fact, it took long enough, but eventually Central Office clicked, and called a press conference to claim that Labour was going to close a specific list of hospitals in sundry constituencies, and that they would be telling local voters all about it.

In other words, Labour ducked the argument, and the Tories twisted it. Now, isn't there something just typical going on there?

What else? Today readers of our front page today learn that a close look at the Tory plans for the public finances over the next three years shows that the Conservatives are actually planning steep cuts in spending on education and training, along with cuts in Home Office-funded services, to cover growing social security costs. If Labour wins the election, it will have to find that money from somewhere. But does anyone dare talk about this in the open?

Anyone going about their daily business in the past few days will surely have had several conversations along the lines of, "oh, I'm bored with this already. I don't know how we'll manage six more weeks of it."

One reason, clearly, is that too many people have already decided that Labour is so far ahead, that the conclusion is foregone, and that therefore everything that happens between now and 30 April is so much wet flannel. That attitude enables politicians to approach the entire campaign in the spirit of evasion: all Labour's energy will go into avoiding mishaps. In reality, though, these first two weeks before Easter were always likely to have been an artificial campaign, taken only half-seriously because everyone knows that the British public's attention span for election campaigns is understandably and sensibly limited. It does not mean that anyone should allow the rest of the campaign to be conducted in this manner.

The best hope is that the Tories take their fight energetically but with a little honesty into the Labour camp, and that the rest of us look hard at Conservative plans, which we have mostly ignored as ''unlikely to happen''. So long as Mr Major is on his back foot, as he has been throughout the first week, neither of these things will happen. And that is why what the country needs right now is for the Conservative campaign to get into gear.

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