Leading Article: Tired of playing the waiting game

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The Independent Online
Why are we waiting? It is now an established tradition for an opposition leader to call, twice a week, for an immediate general election. We think Tony Blair's continuation of this ritual is tiresome. But it occurs to us, at the end of the first week of the long election campaign, to ask the Prime Minister why he thinks there should not be a general election now. We doubt that he can give us one good reason. He might claim that he has a five-year mandate, which has not yet expired. But last November's Queen's Speech confirmed that his is a government that has run out of things to do. His real reasons for hanging on are less elevated. Most importantly, perhaps, he is waiting for something to turn up.

The parallels between John Major and Mr Micawber are instructive. The Conservatives purport to believe in Mr Micawber's simple formula for achieving happiness: that income should exceed outgoings - if only by "ought and sixpence". But, as the national debt has doubled, they are reduced, like Mr Micawber, to hoping for a windfall. The cause of this sorry state is, as both Mr Major and Mr Micawber have said, "circumstances beyond my individual control".

In the end, something did turn up for Mr Micawber, because he is found in the closing pages of David Copperfield, relieved of his debts, as a much-esteemed colonial magistrate in Australia. Here the helpfulness of the literary analogy ends. Does this mean Mr Major will be saved by 8 million Halifax customers, grateful that, for them at least, something has turned up - in the form of an average pounds 1,290 hand-out? Or does it mean, perhaps, that Mr Major will end his career as cultural attache to Tasmania?

It is an intriguing conundrum. Meanwhile, the Tory game plan is to drag it out to the bitter end. If nothing turns up, the hope is that, with the passage of time, more and more people will feel better off. But it is hard to see how Mr Major will get the thanks for the Halifax's bonanza, or any other dividend. All the evidence suggests a radical disconnection between real personal disposable income and government popularity - a link which had been one of the iron laws of British politics. It was broken by a combination of the Tories' breach of trust on taxes and the pound's devaluation out of the ERM in 1992.

The third of Mr Major's calculations is that the longer he plays it, the more the shine comes off Tony Blair's toothy smile and the more difficult it becomes for Labour to travel light into the election. The Labour leader's strategy is already coming under pressure. The fact that the policies on taxing the rich and on electoral reform are not yet firmly nailed to the floor does not inspire confidence that Labour's vessel is ready for the storms of an election campaign.

Mr Major is no doubt fighting the last war, and he remembers that the decisive shift in the 1992 election campaign was the growing expectation that Labour was going to win. Especially in the last week, this focused attention on Neil Kinnock as a potential prime minister and the policies of his potential government. There is much evidence that weakly attached voters then voted tactically against Labour. Given that most voters already expect a Labour government this time, Lord Saatchi and Brian Mawhinney hope to excite our fears of the unknown in the same way.

The Tory calculations have nothing to do with the national interest, although we welcome the Tory strategy to the extent that it is designed to flush out answers from Mr Blair. But we do not believe in spinning out the process for the sake of it: the eight questions to all parties, which we asked on Tuesday on behalf of the voters, could and should be answered now. Indeed, Mr Major has already answered one, saying he would never take Britain out of the European Union, and Mr Blair gets half a tick for in effect ruling out a 50p top rate of tax.

What's more, there must be serious doubts about whether the Tory strategy will work. If billboard advertising is our equivalent of American television commercials, then the Saatchis and the Tories have trounced Labour in the past, but this week's "New Labour, New Failure" campaign, with its red tear motif, seems unlikely to match past successes. There is an emotional artificiality about Dr Mawhinney's campaign which fails to hit home.

That is not to say Labour's response is up to much either, in this first week of what the political operatives call the 17-week "near-term campaign". Who remembers its poster, only launched the other day: a picture of Mr Major, asserting that he cannot be trusted on the economy after 22 tax rises?

This is the sort of politics that gets us nowhere and puts people off. People don't want a long election campaign. The waiting is tiresome, and too many important things are on hold. The electorate are quite happy to pay attention for a few days and then do their civic duty, but three weeks is a bit much, let alone four months.

So why not call an election for three weeks' time? Then the new government will have a real chance to prepare for the June summit in Amsterdam,which will set the future course of the EU, and politics can move on from its limbo.

The lesson is that there is a strong case for fixed-term parliaments, something which Neil Kinnock advocated at the last election but on which Labour is - as on so many things - silent now. We accept that a definite election date would not shorten the pre-election razzamuzzle, but it would allow more certainty and would take away one unjustified advantage of incumbency - the right of the Prime Minister to decide when the country goes to the polls.

Meanwhile, we should ask Mr Major another question in addition to The Independent's Eight: what does he hope to achieve for the country rather than his party in the next four months?

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