The Tory message gets a little help from Super Mac

The trouble for the Tories is that in most people's minds the word that follows Boom is Bust

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There was a glimpse yesterday of a different, older, grander, Conservatism. The bright young suits at Central Office admit freely to having echoed their predecessors of a generation ago with a souped-up version of the slogan which helped Harold Macmillan to a landslide in 1959. "Britain is booming. Don't let Labour blow it," is a conscious translation into Saatchi-ese of "Life's better under the Conservatives. Don't let Labour ruin it."

The 1997 slogan is not risk-free. It uses a dangerous word; research shows that some voters, invited to free associate about the word "boom" in the manner of TV game shows, automatically come up with "bust". It requires the same electors who were told that the recession was caused by world factors beyond the control of the British government to believe that the recovery is entirely of that same government's making. It starkly exposes the fact that the tax argument isn't what it was in 1992: the Tories cannot promise to reduce the overall tax burden in the lifetime of the next Parliament any more than Labour can. And it gambles against the belief, held by some in the Labour Party, that electors are more inclined to opt for a party associated with redistribution at times of economic recovery than at times of depression.

The theme, unveiled at yesterday's Conservative press conference, nevertheless reflects a final and necessary effort by two of the party's biggest performers, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, to turn real economic optimism into votes. The Tory campaign lost a week thanks to well-founded allegations of bribery (let's use the word: it's plainer and less overworked than "sleaze") against several Tory MPs, and the catastrophic part played by the election timing in suppressing the official report which will document it. The antics of John Redwood, the one candidate for the post-Major party leadership who is free from the burdens of Cabinet responsibility, and who this week publishes a book, in defiance of his own Chief Whip, denouncing the single currency, shows how the party's divisions on Europe could yet lose it another.

It may be the Tories' own fault, but Mr Major is having difficulty getting his message - especially his economic message - across. This strange circumstance has two consequences. One is to dispel any doubts about the indispensability of Ken Clarke to the Tory campaign if they are to have the slightest chance of winning.

He is at once the most written-off leadership candidate in his own party and the most feared by the Opposition. Those who revile him for being prepared to contemplate forfeiting the politician's right to fix interest rates and second-guess the advice of central bankers scarcely pause to give him credit for his success in exercising just that right. He was at his most effective yesterday, questioning why Gordon Brown never commented on his interest rate changes after they had taken place.

But the biggest paradox of all is that while his enemies are already preparing to fix much of the blame for losing the election on him, because of his determination to stop Mr Major ruling out the single currency, those same enemies would be unable to withhold from him much of the credit if, against all the odds, the Tories succeeded.

The second consequence has been to shift the balance of opinion within the Tory camp in favour of a TV debate between the party leaders. It is not simply that Labour's huge poll lead has tipped the argument in favour of anything which might move public opinion; or that the Tories' self-inflicted damage lost it the initiative in the first week of the campaign (though both are true). It is also that the media climate is utterly different from that which prevailed in 1992.

The direct impact on voters of The Sun's support for Mr Blair, and of the relative restraint in other quarters of the Tory press, is limited. What it does mean is that the press has been much less reliable than it was in 1992 in setting the agenda on his behalf. For Tony Blair as for Lord Lundy, before it all went wrong (for Lord Lundy, that is): "The stocks were sold, the press was squared / The middle classes quite prepared." And in those circumstances every chance of reaching, unfiltered, an audience of 15 million suddenly looks irresistible, almost whatever the risks.

This shift is quite recent. Central Office were initially much keener than some of Mr Major's immediate advisers on the idea. Even 10 days ago, when the Prime Minister was first said to be ready for a debate, it wasn't clear how serious he was. Was the party merely preparing to blame the Liberal Democrats' objections to their preferred format (throwing Paddy Ashdown the sop of an add-on interview rather than making him "interactive" in a Blair/Major debate) for any collapse in the negotiations? Hints yesterday from the Tories' Michael Dobbs suggest that compromise with the Lib Dems on this point might be possible.

It can still easily go wrong. Labour is angry with the broadcasters, especially the BBC, for proposing a format which it claims was "tailor made" for the Tories. Labour officials roll their eyes with assumed boredom if you raise the subject. There are at the very least shades of opinion within the party's hierarchy over whether the debate would serve any purpose given the party's dominant lead. The party is also agitating for a participating audience. But since Blair is officially said to want it, and since Labour called for it in the first place, there are risks in being anything other than accommodating. It's an innovation whose time has come. The debate has become an issue - and the party seen to stall it will pay a price.

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