Central Office had stoked up the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph to run a "new" splash story about Labour's trade union threat - a revelation about one of Labour's longest-established and most thoroughly trodden policies. The tissue-flimsy pretext for this hyped scare was a report from the union-backed Labour Research Department, which identified 63 companies where unions are seeking trade-union recognition. Plug that into Labour's plan to require recognition of trade-union representation in workplaces where more than half the employees want it, and - blow us down - we have Labour's trade union "hit list". These, suddenly, are the 63 employers on whom Tony Blair wants to impose union deals.
In reality, Labour's policy would affect many hundreds of companies, in all of which unions would dearly like to gain recognition. But this is not the threat that Margaret Thatcher was once able to conjure. She could warn against Labour bringing back secondary action, and other 1970s horrors. The best that the Tories can do this time is hope that voters will be terrified by the prospect of a return to collective wage and salary negotiation in a number of places where employers have been able to bypass unions in recent years.
Voters are only going to be scared if they sense a real danger of a Labour government allowing trade unions to reintroduce to restrictive practices, strikes, work-to-rules, picketing, and all the other self-destructive habits of the past. But Labour's limited measure will not especially encourage the return of that behaviour. Mr Blair firmly intends to leave in place all the Tory constraints on industrial action - including, most importantly, ballots.
Moreover, the unions themselves are too deeply immersed in the process of their own reform. They know there is no way back, so they are moving (slowly, but steadily) towards becoming mutual support systems on the European model, offering pensions advice, individual employment and training guidance, sickness and unemployment insurance, and so on.
Of course, the unions continue to support Labour, because Labour has promised policies that most union activists hold dear - not least the introduction of a national minimum wage. But Mr Blair clearly means it when he says that he wants Labour to represent employees and employers, union members and business leaders. And he is not going to support policies that enable overweening union bosses to cripple managements' competitive freedom to manoeuvre. All he is going to do is allow employees to decide among themselves by a simple majority that they would like a union to represent their interests in discussion with their employer. Indeed, we learn from Gordon Brown that he expects most such arrangements would be agreed voluntarily between employers and unions anyway. Heavens, this is the end of the 20th century. How can any modern business seriously feel threatened by that?
Strangely, Michael Heseltine and his crack Central Office crew clearly thought that they could make the union scare run. How do we know? Because they gaily ditched, at the last minute, a plan to put up Gillian Shephard on tests for 14-year-olds, and switched to unions instead on Tuesday morning.
In so doing, the Conservatives merely confirmed what the majority of voters evidently feel: that they have grown hopelessly out of touch. The only voters who are going to worry about Tony Blair's relations with the unions are those who are guaranteed to vote Tory anyway. Why is Mr Heseltine wasting his energy?
The generous interpretation would be that Mr Heseltine is trying bravely to show how the Tory campaign can deploy itself rapidly in response to the issues of the day. The less generous and probably more accurate interpretation is that the Tories - and Mr Heseltine in particular - are indeed out of touch with the voters they need to reach.
Des Wilson, the seasoned old Liberal campaigner, writes in today's New Statesman that Mr Heseltine "has the self-confidence and power to drive the Tory campaign", but adds, tellingly: "I suspect most voters think he's past his sell-by date". Certainly by yesterday morning Mr Heseltine and his party were back on the ropes, able only to struggle through reactions to sleaze stories of all kinds.
Where is John Major in all of this? Viewed from the London cockpit, peculiarly absent. Actually the Prime Minister has been very busy, touring in the regions, giving interviews and soundbites to local media, and pointedly not bothering to address the national press, who will only try to maul him anyway.
On one level, this is a sound plan: talk as directly to the people as possible. Unfortunately for Mr Major, it is having no impact at all.
We are watching an inverted tale of tortoise and hare. The hare has streaked off ahead - but, far from pausing to nap under a tree, Mr Blair is bounding cheerfully on. Mr Major, instead of steadily and slowly stepping out, has forgotten to get started at all.Reuse content