Never mind the votes, just feel the hooey

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AS THE European election campaign limps to an inglorious close, readers may find the following Hooey Assessment useful.

Results Hooey: Parallel to the everyday European debate, hooey- watchers will have been enjoying the battle of the results, or 'get your interpretation in first'. This is the struggle to predetermine what is a 'good' result for the Government and what is a bad one, and thus to influence the consequences of the polling. Would 'fewer than a dozen' Tory seats represent 'catastrophe'? Would 'single figures' be 'meltdown'? Or can we agree that the retention of, say, 20 Tory seats out of 34 would be 'a triumph'?

Competing groups, including Tory dissidents, loyalist ministers, Labour strategists and a family assortment of boiled pundits have been at this game for weeks: leaking polls, proclaiming their assessments, and doing their best to fool the public. Some intend that the Galloping Major should clear their chosen hurdles, some that he should fall over them. A few, doubtless, are just trying to be helpful. But in all cases, these are subjective numbers waddling about pretending to be political science. Hooey with a clipboard.

This stuff is influential hooey, though, and this is why. Mr Major's survival chances depend on the reaction of Conservative MPs when the election results come in. If Sir Ronnie Chicken (Con, Nissan South) feels a twist of fear in the stomach as his thumb works the teletext, Mr Major might as well go quickly. But if that estimable backbencher, flicking from individual results to regional breakdowns, yawns in the small hours, 'Well, that wasn't so bad,' Mr Major gets to stay.

At the unchallengeable extremes, Sir Ronnie's assessment will be easy and hard to fault. If, however, the Tory performance is bad but mixed, then those trying to establish the terms on which it will be judged have real influence. Sir Ronnie's reaction will be strongly affected by what outside assessments he has picked up, even if it is just the Daily Beast quoting an anonymous 'senior minister' declaring, with compelling precision: 'Below 10 seats, and he's out, more than 10 and he's OK.'

So this battle of interpretation may matter. It should be stressed, however, that the effect of all these predictions is itself unpredictable. For instance, the more the press hype the possible scale of the Tory disaster, the easier it will be for the Prime Minister's men to portray a bad result as an excellent one. This is why some Major loyalists are sounding gloomy, even as cabinet ministers on the campaign trail report that some voters may be returning to the Conservatives.

Hustings Hooey: If they do, Mr Major will forget his high-mindedness about not getting into the numbers game and will swiftly claim a moral victory. We will be reminded that he is a natural genius on the hustings, with an instinctive feel for the British people. Tory MPs will be reassured that this is an election-winning politician.

Well, it is true that Mr Major is a tough campaigner, and that the opposition parties have sounded uninspired. The Prime Minister called for a serious debate about the real European issues. But what he delivered was a nationalistic flag-waving campaign, coupled with a little beggar-bashing, which has changed the Conservatives' image for as long as he leads.

If the Tories do better than expected, it will not be because Mr Major has a feel for the country he leads, still less that he has 'won the argument' - there has hardly been one - but because he has ruthlessly plundered the prejudice box. Under Mr Major the Conservatives are becoming, as Lord Tebbit gleefully notes, a Euro-sceptical party. (The Prime Minister is complaining again that he is being misunderstood - a misfortune he appears to suffer suspiciously often.)

Mid-term Hooey: What, though, if the results are as bad as the polls suggest? Then it will be said, of the Eastleigh by-election as of the European elections, that they do not really matter, that there is plenty of time for a reunited Conservative Party to enjoy the full benefits of economic recovery, that lines have been drawn.

But, with a neat sense of timing, a report by John Curtice and Peter Spencer, two academics commissioned by Kleinwort Benson, argues the opposite: 'Our economic forecasts suggest that the economy, having touched the 3 per cent growth mark this year, will slow down markedly in 1995 and 1996 as the effect of the post-ERM monetary relaxation wears off and fiscal retrenchment (that means taxes) begins to bite . . . the economy alone seems unlikely to be able to deliver a general election victory for the Conservatives.'

As ever, beware all scientific- sounding forecasts. But the Curtice and Spencer analysis, which concludes that if the Tories are to win again, 'the party as a whole will need to demonstrate political skill of the highest order,' makes common sense.

By-elections are indeed simply expressions of protest and anger. European elections, because they do not touch voters' bank balances, are a poor guide to general elections. But the scale of the anger and its geographical spread surely do matter. If these elections show Labour doing well in the Midlands and South-east England, and the Liberal Democrats cleaning up in the South-west, then bridgeheads will have been established by the opposition in former Tory England: and that ought to scare the pants off the Tories.

Finally, with all this hooey at large, is there any reliable way of telling what the weekend results mean? I believe so. Watch Mr Major's face. Then watch Sir Norman Fowler's. The difference between a real grin and a forced one is unmistakable. And it is worth a thousand off-the-record quotes.