LEADING ARTICLE : Major to Blair: lead, follow, or get out of the way

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The Independent Online
Since Tony Blair was elected Labour leader just over a year ago, he has commanded the political stage with a rare authority. Displaying immense political flexibility and ingenuity, he has wowed the nation. For 12 months, British politics has been about Tony Blair. The Tories have been no match: split on Europe, they have displayed all the symptoms of governmental fatigue. John Major has looked bedraggled, bemused and lacking the qualities needed to subdue and lead his fractious colleagues. Finally, in his brave decision to stand for re-election, he sought a fresh start and a measure of calm descended.

But this week's conference could hardly have started less well. Fresh from a magnificent week in Brighton, Mr Blair revealed his latest recruit: Alan Howarth, one of the more intelligent Tory MPs. Given all this, it is hardly surprising that the Tory conference was for the most part a subdued affair. The party feels old, bruised and battered. Off-the-record conversations reveal a manifest sense of impending electoral doom. This year, for the first time for well over a decade, the conference for the smart influence-peddler to be seen at was Labour's.

John Major thus faced a mountain yesterday. In country and party alike, the prevailing view is that only a miracle can save the Tories at the next election. By the time he sat down 80 minutes later, he had given reasonable grounds for doubting the new common sense.

Already during the week, the Tories had displayed some symptoms of recovery. The divisions on Europe have grown less acute, partly because the prospects for a single currency are receding on the continent. There was also clear evidence that Michael Portillo, rather in the way of Tony Benn in the early Eighties, has gone a speech too far. His crude jingoism and dishonest anti-Europeanism has alienated a section of those who previously supported him.

In his conference speech, Mr Blair sought to convince that Labour knows how to modernise Britain. Mr Major had a similar task. Have the Conservatives got anything more to offer the country than memories of the Eighties and longevity in office? Mr Major's oratorical performance paled in comparison with that of the Labour leader, but in content, it did not. On this evidence, the Tories not only have a case - they have a more coherent idea of their mission for the Nineties than Labour.

The core vision is that Britain is the enterprise centre of Europe. This has two aspects. First, it recognises that Britain is necessarily and beneficially part of Europe. There was the mandatory attack on federalism, but Mr Major spent most of his time seeking to persuade his audience of the need to understand Europe rather than dismiss it. The emphasis was distinctly pro-European. Second, it recognises that Britain's interests are not coterminous with or exhausted by its relationship with Europe. Britain exists not only in a European context, but also a global one - the yardstick is not only German competitiveness but East Asian and North American. The Tories are surely right here, and what follows is a powerful and coherent argument: deregulation, opposition to the social chapter, low taxes and public spending, making Britain competitive and a hospitable home for a volume of inward investment which will drive out unemployment and allow us to afford an effective welfare system.

Of course, the reality is that in office, the Tories have been unable to deliver on either taxation or public spending. A party in power for 16 years will be judged more by its record than its reasoning. None the less, the vision is more convincing than Labour's. Mr Blair speaks with compelling passion of a kinder society and proposes an education drive to raise skills and employability, along with government determination to broker the construction of the information superhighway. Mr Major's vision is more globally aware, more embedded in the history and experience of the Eighties, and more respectful of the centrality of the market and competition.

In his speech, Mr Major combined this core vision with a powerful exposition of Tory values and philosophy. The battle lines are thus becoming clearer. This was an altogether more intellectually confident argument: there were no crude, unconvincing sideswipes against Mr Blair, but a clear delineation of the differences. The Tories, by this speech, are no longer mesmerised by Mr Blair but are beginning to find his measure.

Patches of clear blue water start to appear. Labour believes more government is part of the solution, the Tories that it is part of the problem. While the Tories advocate choice, Labour appears to restrict it: an example is the assisted places scheme which Labour wants to abolish and the Tories will now double. The Conservatives favour the Union, Labour is committed to devolution. Mr Major ardently desires the end of whole categories of taxation, such as that on inheritance; Mr Blair won't be called a tax- raiser, but his tone is less sure. Mr Major approves Michael Howard's steel toe-capped approach to crime. Mr Blair may be stranded in his sneakers.

Of course, a conference speech does not make a successful election campaign, nor does a plausible vision of the future mean that it will inform the real actions of a government. But Mr Major has made a serious effort at turning the tide. It is possible at least now to see a story the Conservatives can tell the voters: if you want to vote conservative, vote for the Conservatives, not the pretenders.

Mr Major lacks Mr Blair's charisma, but the content of this speech requires Mr Blair to react. Will he emphasise further his conservatism and his sobriety, or will he risk more radicalism?

Labour has now been reminded that whatever Mr Major's shortcomings as a leader, he has qualities. He is authentic, honourable and decent. He lays bare "honourable scars of battle" to contrast with the inexperience of his opponent. At the end of the day, he is more representative of the British people than the public school- and Oxford-educated former barrister who leads the Labour Party. Come the next election, this could yet count. It is well to remember that Blair versus Major is light years away from Wilson versus Home in 1964.