Major's last stand

BRUCE WALLACE March 31 1997

Major's last stand

BRUCE WALLACE March 31 1997

Major's last stand



Elections, some people say, are tough and gruelling businesses,” declared Tory Prime Minister John Major, standing in warm spring sunshine outside 10 Downing Street last week as he kicked off what will be Britain’s longest general election campaign in 70 years. “But / happen to think they’re also a lot of fun.” Really? Here is how Major’s first fun-filled campaign week unfolded.

On Day 1, a new Gallup poll put the sinking Tories 28 points behind the opposition Labour party. “Landslide” would be too modest a term for a Labour win of those proportions. Then The Sun newspaper—which showed what it can do to its enemies when it orchestrated a vicious but successful smear campaign against Labour during the 1992 election—told its 10 million readers it was time to “give change a chance,” and advised voting for Labour’s new leader Tony Blair this time around. On the fifth day, an ongoing Guardian newspaper investigation into so-called government sleaze alleged that Major himself knew that some of his MPs were taking envelopes stuffed with cash and other gifts from lobbyists and businessmen. As the parliamentary session closed with snarly, personal attacks on the prime minister’s own probity, Major must have wondered if the fun ever gets any better than this.

Nothing if not a great punch-absorber, Major characteristically shrugged off the bad news. He dismissed the Guardian reportas “totaljunk,” then grabbed his trademark soapbox and headed off to find a crowd. The prime minister carried the same battered and tape-bandaged prop with him during the 1992 campaign, using it to promote his no-frills, Honest John style. Major believes he can exploit lingering voter suspicions about Blair’s preachy, slightly smarmy public persona, and his hope for reelection rests on turning this contest into headto-head combat with Blair.

In reality, Major has little choice but to go it alone. His party is demoralized. Ministers contradict government policy almost daily. And party factions are openly positioning themselves for a post-defeat leadership race. The strident anti-Europeans in the Tory party chafe under Major’s equivocating over European union, and many regard a crushing defeat as an opportunity to take control of the

party. For now, all signs point to them getting their chance after May 1, the polling day likely to end a run of Tory rule begun by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

On the surface, any British government should be popular enough to get re-elected these days. The country is indulging in a fuzzy national euphoria, a glow largely spawned by a healthy economy. Politically, the key indicator is unemployment, now at a 10year low of 6.2 per cent—a level virtually unknown in continental Europe where a jobless crisis is shaking governments and undermining the rush to further European union (page 38). The Tories have deregulated and privatized state companies. The mood among the financial whiz kids in the City of London remains thermodynamic. Real estate prices are pushing back up this spring like the daffodils sprouting in the parks. Why, the Tories ask voters, run the risk of spoiling it all now by chucking out the government that brought you the good times? Or, as Major put it in darker terms from his soapbox last week: “I see, behind the front men, the old face of Labour, waiting to pay off their debts to left-wing interest groups.”

So far, however, most voters are convinced that Blair has indeed mended Labour’s old tax-and-spend socialist ways, and that changing governments will mean business as usual. Since winning the leadership three years ago, Blair has taken the broom to the party’s Marxist-Leninist disciples, marginalizing or chasing away the few he could not convert to his policy of modernization. Tories may be suspicious of his political cleverness, but Labour’s old hard-left despises him for it. As prime minister,

Blair will nationalize no “tools of production.” Rich toffs are unlikely to see their taxes rise—at least at first.

No spending orgies are planned. And it is hard to tell which of the two main parties is more of a gunslinging sheriff when it comes to issues of crime and punishment. For subscribers to the “death of history” theory, where ideology no longer plays a role in government, Blair’s New Labour is Exhibit A. Even Thatcher has privately expressed admiration for him.

“I do not think everything that has happened in the last 18 years has been bad,” Blair said last week on a campaign swing through Gloucester.

“My attitude is: keep what is working and change what is not.”

Blair is chummy,, too, with the big business crowd, which is where media tycoon Rupert Murdoch comes in. Murdoch’s influence in Britain extends from his ownership of popular tabloid papers like The Sun to the more weighty Times of London and the country’s only satellite broadcasting system. His endorsement of Blair was significant, though probably a stretch to say surprising—Murdoch can read the polls. But if anything demonstrates Labour’s evolution from its old union dependency, it is the rapprochement with a man whom Labour has long regarded as a force for evil.

The hostility dates from 1986 when the Australian native smashed Britain’s once-powerful printing unions. With Thatcher’s blessing, Murdoch shifted production of his papers from Fleet Street to new facilities in east end London against the union’s will, and fired hundreds of illegally striking workers who refused to report. After months of rioting, the unions caved in, but Murdoch and Labour re-

mained at war. In 1992, The Sun ridiculed then-Labour Leader Neil Kinnock during a close campaign with an election-day front page that warned: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.” Blair’s wife, Cherie, still refuses to let The Sun into their home.

But since the tabloid’s power could not be ignored, Blair tried at least to neutralize it. ‘The relationship between the trade unions and Fleet Street was abysmal, let’s be honest,” he said in an interview with the left-leaning New Statesman magazine last week, savoring Murdoch’s endorsement. For Murdoch, the potential benefits are also huge: he is currently bidding to provide a new digital television service to Britain, and fears that a hostile government (such as one filled by Labour members with long memories) might introduce a law preventing such extensive cross-media ownership. His worries seem over. In Blair’s New Statesman interview, the putative prime minister ruled out any such laws—though he insisted that “we’ve never traded policies with Rupert Murdoch in return for the support of his papers.”

Britain's leader calls an election that he must fight virtually on his own

Murdoch’s shine to Blair even included proffering the endorsement of the Scottish Sun, which for the past five years has been one of the loudest voices demanding Scottish independence and normally backs the Scottish National Party. Blair’s overtures to Scotland go only as far as a separate parliament with limited powers. He wants to satisfy grievances north of the border while preserving the Union. But The Sun went into contortions to endorse Blair last week, arguing that Labour’s halfmeasure devolution proposals were actually the best way to get full independence (somewhat like suggesting that Quebec independence would come about faster under a Quebec Liberal government than a Parti Québécois one).

It is on constitutional issues such as the future of Scotland that Labour and the Tories truly differ. Having cut old Labour members off, cold turkey, from their socialist economic theories, Blair has allowed them to bandy around a range of constitutional changes—a sort of political nicotine patch for their radical cravings. A Labour government is pledged to give the Scots and Welsh their own parliaments while retaining their seats at Westminster, although the tricky issue of where that leaves England’s voters has yet to be resolved. Labour has also vowed to end the right of hereditary peers to vote in the House of Lords.

Major sees an opportunity to take votes from Labour on those points. He campaigned as a champion of the Union in 1992, and warns that Labour’s tampering could unravel the British system all the way up to the monarchy. His best shot at recovery will come during two televised leaders’ debates, Britain’s first ever. He remains an optimist. “Not only do I think it’s winnable, but I think that we are going to win this election,” Major said somewhat awkwardly the day he dropped the writ last week. But it will be a lonely fight. □