John Major yesterday warned the country that it risked the midsummer nightmare of a Labour landslide, opening the way for Tony Blair to overturn Tory success with the policies of full-blooded socialism.
Fresh from the triumph of the Wirral South by-election, the Labour leader yesterday appeared at his party's Welsh conference, in Llandudno, with new MP Ben Chapman, 56, a former civil servant.
Mr Blair said there was a new-found trust in New Labour, "the one-nation party of British politics", and that Wirral South represented "a political uprising against the Tories deep in their heartlands".
The voters of Wirral South had had their say; now it was time for the country to have its chance. Mr Blair urged the Prime Minister: "For heaven's sake, in the interests of the country, stop the dithering."
Faced with the 17-per-cent swing to Labour in Wirral, the Tory reaction was confused. One "very senior Conservative", was quoted in last night's London Evening Standard as saying that the party planned to scare the voters "shitless". This prompted Labour's campaign manager, Brian Wilson, to issue a statement saying the anonymous source had let the cat out of the bag, confirming the Tories "will sink to any level of lie and smear in order to win."
Although some ministers were confidently saying they would win it all back in an election at most two months away on 1 May, others warned of the revolutionary threat posed by Mr Blair's socialist party to the family, community and country.
Mr Major said the by-election marked the end of the "phoney war". He said in a BBC interview: "We will win back Wirral at the general election". But he also warned of the consequences of a Wirral-scale general election landslide.
"In a few weeks' time," he said, "the people of Wirral will have the chance to vote again, and so will the rest of the country, and that decision might change the face of Britain.
"So the battle is still to be fought. Does Britain change course? Does it move to the policies of socialism? Or, does it stay in the policies that have made it successful over the last few years?"
However, Mr Major then added: "If we had voting like last night, there would be a Labour government with a clear majority, able to do what it wished, without let or hindrance".
Speaking in Glasgow last night, Mr Major said: "I don't believe last night's by-election result, although it puts us in a minority of one, will alter the date I have in mind for the election." But he continued to tease the country by refusing to confirm that 1 May was the date.
On the basis of the Wirral South swing, Labour would have a majority of more than 290. Some of Mr Major's senior advisers are warning that a Labour majority on that scale would deliver more than 100 fully-fledged socialist MPs into the Labour ranks in the Commons ,"with all the risks that would entail".
The risk of talking up the Labour threat is that it might add to Labour credibility and further depress Conservative morale, at a time when even some ministers believe that the party is doomed.
The evidence for that pessimism can be seen in Westminster's up-and-running campaign for the next Conservative leadership contest, which is built on an assumption of defeat.
Mr Major insisted: "The whole Cabinet thinks it's going to win the election, not just me ... and I think the parliamentary [Conservative] party increasingly believes that is the case."
Mr Blair said that while the Government had long ago given up governing, its complacent reaction to the result in Wirral South showed that it had also given up listening. "They dismiss it as a protest vote of no significance and carry on," he said. "Arrogant, out of touch, squabbling already about who should be the next leader, that is today's Conservative Party." Labour's Chief Whip, Donald Dewar, said: "Major seems to have lost the plot. It is clear that John Major has been up all night and, what's more, his morale has hit rock bottom. Nothing else can explain the gobbledygook that he talked in his interviews today."
Paddy Ashdown said Liberal Democrats had one message for Mr Major: "The game's up. The longer you leave it the harder you fall."
Labour deputy leader John Prescott, who led the Wirral South campaign, said Labour had never believed the general election result was sewn up. "We've lost four elections," he said in a BBC radio interview. "But we now think there is the best chance we have ever had".
Labour had contacted 25,000 people during the campaign, and Mr Prescott said: "We had the best organisation and the best candidate. We used all the modern methods. We had good policy, good organisation, and it clearly paid off."
Wirral aftermath, page 7
Leading article, page 19
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