Leading article: Time to get out the soapbox, Mr Major

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The Conservative Party is going through the motions. Bashing the BBC. Pretending John Major might face Tony Blair in a TV debate. Hinting at a long election campaign to flush out new Labour. This is routine pre- election game-playing. The Prime Minister's willingness to spar with Mr Blair in a live "presidential" debate is particularly phony. He would love to have a go at the Labour leader, his lieutenants say, but not with Paddy Ashdown there, because that would be two against one. No debate, then, because the Liberal Democrats would have a court injunction before you could say "David Dimbleby". As for the endless stories about this date or that, and when the Prime Minister might announce a May 1 election, none of it makes any difference. Most voters just want to get on with it. And Labour's disciplined troops are not going to make any important errors, whether they fight a short campaign or a long one. On the contrary, the more time that passes, the more scope there is for Cabinet disarray on Europe to manifest itself, as Stephen Dorrell demonstrated yesterday.

The question that Mr Major faces today, as he reviews the Tory strategy for fighting the general election, is how to change the Tory strategy. If we look back over the "near-term" campaign, which started with the "demon eyes" advertisement last summer, the tenor has been overwhelmingly negative. The "demon eyes" themselves may have been successful propaganda, as a crude and massively publicised way of linking Mr Blair's apparent insincerity in some things with the gulf between the Labour leader and his party. And the Tory conference in Bournemouth last October was also a success, in that ministers and party presented themselves as united while Mr Major gave a plausible account of his pragmatic premiership in an informal shirt-sleeved question-and-answer session.

But recently the Tory campaign has been miserable and unconvincing. The costing of Labour's non-existent spending plans at pounds 30bn a year was an attempt to refight the 1992 election against a "new" Labour Party which has done virtually nothing since then except work out how to avoid being squashed like that again. Worse, the Tories then repeated the single poster theme that can have no credibility this time round, claiming that Labour "might" put up taxes by pounds 2,300 a year. Of course, the pounds 1,250 tax bombshell campaign at the last election was brilliant, hard-hitting and successful. It doesn't even matter any more whether it was dishonest or not. The one thing that everyone knows about it is that the party which ran it has put our taxes up. All this is insulting the voters' intelligence. And they haven't even done it properly. The pounds 2,300 figure is based on Labour spending not pounds 30bn a year more but pounds 54bn, if - a political poster with an "if" in the copy! - if it increases spending to the European average. All this illustrated with a moth-eaten lion which yawned its way through the party political broadcast which introduced this tosh to the nation. If this represents the best that Lord Saatchi can offer a Tory party in a state of advanced electoral meltdown, then it is poor indeed. Little wonder that Brian Mawhinney announced the early retirement of "King" the lion yesterday.

So what should the Tories do? Well, if there is a battle going on behind the scenes between Michael Heseltine and Dr Mawhinney for control of the Tory campaign, the Deputy Prime Minister should be allowed to win it. Dr Mawhinney is an able man, but he is essentially a one-dimensional politician. He is a bruiser without any of the cheerful chutzpah needed to carry it off (compare Kenneth Clarke, for example). He is about as voter-friendly as a Stasi officer in a polling booth. It is time for Mr Major to stop pretending to be a "pair of curtains", in former Tory treasurer Lord McAlpine's crushing phrase, and take responsibility for the campaign himself.

Mr Major's friends are urging him to get out his famous soapbox and take his case to the people, as he did in the closing days of the last election. No doubt this will present him in his best light, but the real question is, what should he say? There is only one course open to him. He has to make the most of the nation's present relative economic success. The Tories can make one good case: that, over the past 18 years, despite some appalling mistakes of economic management, they have brought about historic shifts in favour of more competition and a more flexible labour market, thereby laying the foundations for sustained growth. It is pointless and demeaning to try to scare people with the prospect of Labour ruining this achievement. Mr Major should just accept that he cannot shoot new Labour down. Mr Blair simply has too many aircraft in the sky. At least, if the Prime Minister aims to concentrate on his party's arguable achievement, he can lose with some dignity and honour.

Incidentally, such a course would also be most likely to minimise Tory losses, and give the party (and Mr Major) the best chance of recovering after the election. It would be a mistake to conduct a nasty, negative campaign, because that will leave a bitter taste, and like as not help Mr Blair on to a thumping majority. Mr Major should roll up his sleeves, climb on his soapbox and tell the truth about what he thinks his party has done best.