Yesterday's announcement by the Prime Minister, though long expected, had the usual galvanising effect of such events. At Smith Square and Millbank Tower, the activity was frenetic; at Westminster, members began sorting through their files, mapping out their movements and appearances, getting ready to take their shows on the road. Even though a 1 May election had been regarded as inevitable for weeks, official confirmation transformed the mood. The news yesterday that John Major was taking his soapbox back to Luton, where on 28 March five years ago it made its first appearance in his campaign, caused a frisson of anticipation. Battle had finally been joined.
Six weeks on, however, we will be sick of the sight of that damn box. Already we've had more than enough weeping lions and Siamese Majors, joined at the head, to last us a good long while. Six weeks from now, one more cheesy Blair grin, one more blast of sub-Churchillian national heroics, one more character slur, will turn us homicidal. One more gloomy, doomy scenario of Britain bankrupted and humiliated by either the machinations of Labour's left or a Tory party terminally riven by sleaze and Euro-scepticism will send us off our collective trolleys.
Supposing the apparatchiks can see this - supposing that chinks of normal daylight can penetrate the chambers wallpapered with slogans where these people reside - why, then, have they allowed John Major to take this terrifying gamble with our patience?
One reason is simply that the Prime Minister had painted himself into a corner. As one insider put it, "John Major didn't want to be the last person to announce the date of the election". As 1 May is the last possible date, there was no element of surprise to exploit. But by announcing the election this far in advance, Major may hope that he does not look as if he is bowing too fearfully and belatedly to the inevitable.
There is also a sense in which, though now officially under way, the war will remain phoney for the next fortnight. Until the House dissolves after Easter, MPs will remain locked into their Commons routines, and government business will unfold with a hysterical semblance of normality. Only once April Fools' Day is safely behind them will the MPs board their war buses and sally forth.
There is one other reason for a long campaign. Tory strategists hope that the more searching the examination to which Tony Blair must be subjected, the better the chance that waverers will decide that after all they do not like what they see. "A long election campaign will help to focus on the risks of Labour," one senior party worker said. "It's easier to turn news into propaganda than to turn propaganda into news, so in peace-time, outside a campaign, journalists are only interested in news stories, not argument. That's not true in an election campaign. Conservatives depend on the arguments. We have nothing to fear from a prolonged intellectual debate."
In other words, the sooner the Tories, as ministers, can stop doing things (which go off at half-cock, or blow up in their faces) and clamber up on their soapboxes, the happier they will be.
It is brave talk, which strives to turn to advantage the fact that neither party has many more trinkets left to pull out from under the counter. The phoney campaign has been under way for months now, ever since the autumn party conferences. The fireworks have all been exploded, the Tattooed Lady has done her stuff. All that is left to titillate us is the prospect of the bare-knuckle fist-fight.
Of course the sheer intensity of activity and excitement within political circles over the next weeks will produce enough accidental effects to distract the rest of us from time to time. Looking back over 1992, one recalls the great Jennifer's Ear controversy, the launching of the manifesto of the Natural Law Party with the slogan, worthy of Eric Cantona, "Only a new seed will yield a new crop". Then there were the fatal blunders of the last phase of Labour's campaign, the launch of the alternative budget and the triumphalist April Fools' Day rally in Sheffield.
Such reckless celebrations of supposed foregone conclusions will no doubt be studiously avoided this time around. Labour has run an extremely tight ship ever since Blair took over as leader nearly three years ago, but yesterday the word from Millbank was that it had got even tighter: to prevent contradictory messages getting out to feed a ravenous Tory press, all bids for interviews with Labour must now be channelled through the press office. Discipline will be even more rigorously imposed than before.
This is an acknowledgement that despite or even because of his party's continuing extraordinary lead in the opinion polls, the attention of the nation will be relentlessly on Tony Blair for the next six weeks. And this is for a very good reason: Tony, we hardly know you. We know everything we have had pushed at us, from fish and chips to Christian socialism. But if John Major is like some slightly seedy, down-at-heel uncle whose tedious monologues one avoids at family gatherings, Blair is the prospective new son-in-law. We've experienced the handshake and seen the grin, we've grinned back through several sessions of inconsequential banter. But who really is this man who claims this role in our lives? Our acquaintance has barely begun.
It is a fair bet that Blair's minders are not going to make it easy for us. But for voters, trying to find out who the Labour leader really is will be the main task of the next six weeks. Perhaps one's fear that this will be a boring time is wildly misplaced.Reuse content