Leading Article: Major loses hold of middle ground

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The Independent Online
THIS is the week when Conservative Party woes will again take centre stage. John Smith's death briefly shifted attention away from the Government's unpopularity. But that tragedy has now ceased to be a distraction. John Major awaits a defeat at the polls on Thursday at least as bad as, and probably worse than, the local election debacle a month ago.

The Prime Minister may be confident that, having weathered that result, he will also survive humiliation in the European elections. He can take credit for the public unity his party has recently strained to demonstrate. The Tory party has proved that it can sing from the same hymn sheet when the need is desperate. Mr Major may also feel less threatened by Michael Heseltine, his most menacing potential usurper. His challenger's history of coronary heart disease has become a political liability.

Yet these comforts are small beside the problems faced by the Conservatives. The odds on their retaining control of 10 Downing Street have lengthened considerably even since the local elections. In the process of holding his party together, Mr Major has adopted an increasingly right-wing agenda and left the middle ground of politics vulnerable to take-over by other parties.

Mr Smith had begun to attract more centrist voters. Tony Blair, his likely successor, is proving even more seductive. His speech in Eastleigh last week declared Labour 'the party of one nation'. It was designed unashamedly to lure those Tories who long for a revival of values associated with Disraeli, Macleod and Heath.

If Mr Major is not alarmed by Mr Blair, then he should be by his own failure to regain some of the political high ground as the economy slowly improves. The Tories have felt quietly confident that a return to prosperity would reverse the opinion polls by the time of the next election. Yet a study published last week by the analysts Kleinwort Benson tells a different story. Using econometric models, it finds that the pound's withdrawal from the exchange rate mechanism on Black Wednesday in September 1992 cost the Government 16 points in popular support which it has failed to regain.

'Despite the recession, before September 1992, the Conservatives had a clear lead over Labour,' the study finds. 'But after Black Wednesday the two parties swapped places; ever since then Labour have been as much ahead of the Conservatives as they were previously behind.' In other words, the sterling crisis triggered a political collapse that has proved far more difficult to repair than was ever expected at the time.

Mr Major faces a heavy responsibility: to hold his party together, while reclaiming the affections of ordinary, middle-of-the-road voters who trusted his common sense style in 1992. Before Tory critics bay for his blood again when the election results are announced they should be aware how enormous that task is. They would be wise to avoid making their leader's life any harder than it is already bound to be.

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