The man who would be president - until he's elected

Major's campaign style won't wash here - the state of the party counts as much as the qualities of the man
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The most interesting reply John Major gave at his press conference on Tuesday was that he would serve a full term if elected. Maybe that was wise. To contemplate departure at all is an admission of mortality. It nevertheless conflicts with gossip in the past that if he were to confound predictions and win, he would leave voluntarily in mid-term, perhaps once the millennium celebrations were complete. And didn't some of his most trusted campaigners during the 1995 leadership contest, hedging against a right-wing cabinet challenge, insist repeatedly that he would depart in plenty of time for a young pretender such as Michael Portillo to succeed him before the next general election?

But that isn't the point. Circumstances dictate that between now and polling day the Prime Minister cannot for one moment suggest that he might be replaced in mid-term. For it is he, rather than his party, whom the voters are explicitly being asked to endorse.

For all the Tory claims that their opponents are a one-man band, it is they who now offer up a single figure as their champion, their prize electoral asset. On Tuesday, Mr Major stood alone against a backdrop on which the word Conservative was nowhere to be seen. It was Tony Blair who sat flanked by a Cook-Brown-Prescott-Beckett quartet, all of whom spoke at yesterday's press conference. Unlike James Callaghan before he lost power, Mr Major is shown by the polls to be much less personally popular than his opponent. But like James Callaghan, he is significantly more popular than his party. And that is why Conservative Central Office has been prepared to sign up to the media construct of a presidential-style election campaign.

The 1979 parallel, or rather the reverse image of it, isn't an empty one. It is not just that Mr Callaghan was the most popular feature of his party (which was why he did what Mr Major has so far declined to do and vainly offered Margaret Thatcher a television debate). It was also that the seeds of the disintegration into which the party would fall within a year or so, had already been sown. To realise how fruitfully, you only have to have read the post-election diary entry in which a cheerful Tony Benn says how much he is looking forward to the freedom of opposition. This was a party in which a large faction was preparing, unencumbered by the distractions of government, to wage a life-and-soul struggle for its future. Sound familiar? It may even be that the modern Tories - as late-1970s Labour already were - are now in real, if not irrevocable, danger of splitting into two. John Major's special claim to wage a presidential campaign is that he is a relative rarity among senior Tories in not half- actively preparing, Tony Benn-style, for opposition.

That isn't to say that Major won't be an effective campaigner. Or that there is any reason to doubt his own promise that he will be an enthusiastic one. His argument that it was Conservatism which was the author and executor of the programme of union reform and privatisation to which Labour now subscribes has a simple resonance. He may not be comfortable in defending the rights of hereditary peers, but he is dangerous in attacking Scottish home rule because he is genuinely, passionately, against it.

Blair scorched more earth yesterday by giving the clearest possible sign that no new personal taxes, including a new top rate, are any longer being considered. It is true that economic circumstances may yet require a first Labour budget to put taxes up. But precisely because that's just as likely of the Tories, they can make little or nothing of it. It nevertheless remains possible that Major can start to turn rapidly improving economic optimism into the vote winner the polls stubbornly suggest it has so far failed to be.

But in encouraging the argument - which is also seductive to intellectuals on the left - that Labour's programme isn't detailed enough, the Tories run up against another formidable 1979 precedent much studied by Blair. The Labour leader yesterday made education and reform of the welfare state his priorities. The assumption must be that money saved in social security reform will go primarily to education. Gordon Brown's hit last year on child benefit for middle-class parents of 16- to 18-year-olds hints that Labour may well be radical enough to dig deep into universal benefits for those who don't need them. But in not committing himself before the election, the Labour leader is doing more than following the copybook case of Margaret Thatcher in fighting on a manifesto that tells the truth but not the whole truth. Wasn't it Chris Patten, an architect of that manifesto who said prophetically in 1978 that "No opposition can expect to do the kind of elaborate analysis of future spending plans and possibilities which is possible for a government"?

The case of Callaghan's fall also suggests, to Major's disadvantage, the real and rather boring reason that the notion of a presidential campaign in the UK won't run. We don't have a presidential system here. Because the same party controls the legislature and the executive, the voters are electing the party as well as the leader to power when they put their crosses in the ballot box. The state of the party matters as much as the qualities of the man. It's true that Blair presides over a coalition of old and new guard, but so did Margaret Thatcher in 1979. And if he wins, like Thatcher's mainly loyal 1979 intake, the new Labour entrants, capturing fresh territory outside the party's heartlands for the first time in 20 years, will owe their arrival and continued survival to him. It is a paradox that Blair's achievement is not so much that he has projected himself as a national leader, but that he has at last turned Labour into the party most capable of leading.