World

The Tories' tears

John Major is plagued by scandal and 'Euroskeptics' as an election looms

BRUCE WALLACE January 20 1997
World

The Tories' tears

John Major is plagued by scandal and 'Euroskeptics' as an election looms

BRUCE WALLACE January 20 1997

The Tories' tears

World

John Major is plagued by scandal and 'Euroskeptics' as an election looms

BRUCE WALLACE

As enemies go, Max Clifford is one that most public figures would rather not make. Sweeps of snow-white hair and a lawyerly demeanor mask the fact that Clifford is a peacock when it comes to publicity. Anyone with sensational information to sell in Britain knows to shop it to the country’s salacious tabloid press through Clifford, especially if the dirt is going to stick to a politician. “Publicist” is simply too modest a term for what Max Clifford does. His clients in the past year included O. J. Simpson, for whom he arranged a speaking engagement at the Oxford Students Union, and Mandy Allwood, whose personal account of her eight-fetus pregnancy and miscarriage reportedly earned her more than $1 million from a British tabloid—minus Clifford’s cut.

But Clifford seems to get the most joy out of outing any Tory politician with a wayward private life, and his hit list is lengthening. He struck again last week, orchestrating the exposé of a Tory backbencher allegedly caught in sexual shenanigans that were hardly what Prime Minister John Major meant when he portrayed the Conservatives as the party of family values. Jerry Hayes, a husband, father of two and a minor backbench MP, was accused of having a 16-month-long homosexual affair with an underage Young Conservative. Little is shocking in those details alone, which are run-of-the-mill in the annals of British parliamentary sex scandals. What did unsettle Major and his colleagues was Clifford’s vow that he was ready to wage a “personal vendetta” against the Tory government, promising to drop two or three more scandals on the British public between now and the general election that Major must hold within five months (most observers expect the call for May 1).

Clifford is a vocal labour Party supporter, for whom every toppled Tory is a legitimate casualty of the class war. Perhaps hoping to elevate the art of peddling sleaze, he said he is driven by anger at the decline in Britain’s

public health-care service under 17 years of Tory rule. But to an already rattled Tory caucus, he was no more than a front man for Labour dirty tricks. Labour officials swiftly disavowed any association with Clifford, but they must have smiled as_Major’s dreams for a fresh political start to the new year fizzled. This month was supposed to mark the beginning of the unofficial campaign for a fifth consecutive Tory win, in which Major would try to turn the focus from Tory internal woes to the “risks” of electing a Labour government. The Christmas recess had come none too soon for the Prime Minister who, in the run-up to year’s end, saw his parliamentary majority erased by another byelection defeat and narrowly avoided a government loss in the Commons.

Further, the Tory party remains hopelessly split over how much European integration is a good thing for Britain. Top cabinet ministers, some with an eye to succeeding Major as Tory leader after an election defeat, have begun arguing publicly over whether Britain should give up the pound and join the single European currency planned for 1999. None of their positions bear much resemblance to Major’s compromise position to “wait and see” how the negotiations go, which is hardly “the buck stops here.” Such chaotic governing has taken its toll. Under leader Tony Blair, opposition Labour has dropped much its old socialist economic baggage (the Blairites now call their party “New Labour”), and holds a 20-point lead in the polls.

The gap has barely budged in two years and has given Labour an aura of invincibility. Blair has the itchiness of a politician impatient with the bonds of opposition, and his aides have slipped to indiscreetly speculating about the renovations needed at the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street to accommodate the Blair family’s two school-age children. Even Major’s allies doubt he can win. ‘Writing about him,” lamented political columnist Bruce Anderson in the conservative magazine The Spectator, “it is hard to avoid obituary mode.” Those conditions have made prime ministerial life in the House of Commons downright unpleasant. Not only do Major’s ears burn from the heckling of his own backbenches, but he has to look across the Commons aisle every day at the scornful Blair’s increasingly histrionic, finger-jabbing demands that the Tories call the election right now.

So there was little surprise at Major’s decision to take his campaign away from the cacophony of the Commons. He began the new year with a series of one-on-one television interviews, followed by a White House-style news conference to try to establish the terms of debate for the coming election. In essence, he plans a fear campaign against Labour, contending that electing Blair is an unnecessary gamble at a time when Britain’s economy is healthy. He portrayed the choice between the Tories and Labour as an economic decision between “smiles and tears,” and then stepped aside as new Tory ads were unveiled.

In the new campaign, black-and-white ads depicted wasted, emotionally shattered-looking people with red tears dripping from their eyes, backed by one of five warnings, such as “New Labour— New taxes,” and the even less catchy “New Labour—New mortgage risk.” This, the Tory election brass insisted, was not negative campaigning—but the ridicule that greeted those claims and the ads themselves was hardly what the Tories hoped to get for their $15-million investment.

Scare-mongering over Labour’s economic policies remains a questionable tactic, at any rate, since Blair has exorcised Labour of its old left-wing, tax-and-spend image. The new Labour Party believes in unfettered markets, opposes new taxes, no longer plans to nationalize industries, and is arguably tougher on crime than the Tories (last week, Blair announced he favored a zero tolerance policy towards aggressive beggars, petty street criminals and graffiti artists, and added for good measure that he never gave money to beggars). The convergence towards Tory economics has alienated many traditional Labourites, but Blair calculates that the changes will make the party electable again after four successive defeats.

The real fault line in modern British politics is over the issue of European integration. Until recently, the so-called debate over “Europe” was a topic sniffed only in the ratified salons of multinational business people and the political class. “Now it’s becoming a mainstream issue,” says Bob Worcester, chairman of the MORI polling firm, pointing to a December survey that shows nearly one in four Britons citing Europe as the single most important issue facing the country. Major sees that as an opportunity, arguing that the Tory party’s skepticism towards European federalism means that he, rather than the pro-European Blair, is best-suited to guard British interests at crucial European Union negotiations leading up to the single currency.

But the Tory divisions over Europe seem powerful enough to tear the party apart. Its skeptics are gathering strength, toughening their anti-European demands even as their attacks on the Prime Minister’s policy hurt their chances of re-election. “We’ve got all these Andy Warhol types, looking for 15 minutes of fame and having a lovely time being in front of the media,” complains Tory MP Edwina Currie, a strongly pro-European member. “I’ve heard it said inside the party that it would suit many Euroskeptics to be in opposition so they can swing the party their way, and that’s a dangerous attitude. Are they better off if a Labour government is doing the negotiating?”

But the attrition from the Tory’s proEuropean ranks continues, as ambitious ministers try to establish anti-European credentials. And the Euroskeptics grow bolder. Where they once balked at joining the single currency, many now demand a British withdrawal from the European Union’s political bodies altogether. Their arguments have become increasingly Europhobic, essentially contending that Germany’s de facto domination of pan-European monetary policy is nothing more than the continuation of the Second World War by other means. So bad was the rift in December that Major’s formidable and pro-European finance minister, Kenneth Clarke, rose in the Commons to all but give his blessing to Britain’s membership in the single currency. It was a warning to Major that caving in to the skeptics could cost him the resignation of a popular chancellor of the exchequer.

And Major is banking on Britain’s highperforming economy to pull him out of trouble by election day. Britain’s growth rate and employment levels are the envy of Europe. But as Canada’s Tories learned in 1993, sometimes voters have simply made up their minds that it is time for a change. In a week that offered more Tory infighting, more negative advertising and another Tory scandal, Labour’s new campaign slogan may have more accurately caught the public mood. Theirs said simply: “Enough is enough.” □