So what if the polls are not even close? Halfway through a campaign that can barely be called a race, the British general election is nonetheless dishing up lively entertainment. It began with the tabloids running long-lens pictures of Tory MP and self-declared family values man Piers Merchant attached at the lips to a blond, 17-year-old nightclub hostess who was one of his campaign volunteers. Forget health care.
The suitability of Merchant to run for office dominated the opening week, sustained when two other Tory candidates withdrew from the campaign over sex scandals of their own.
Merchant, however, proclaimed his innocence and refused to quit, granting the photographers who camped on his doorstep what they ritually demand in these cases: pictures of the “love rat” smooching with an apparently forgiving wife. Merchant fights on.
Kindergarten-level sex scandals then surrendered the front pages to chickens. When Labour leader Tony Blair took a look at his 20-points-plus lead in the polls and decided there was no percentage in risking it by debating John Major on national TV, the frustrated Tory prime minister called Blair “a chicken.” Tory strategists, anxious for anything to pop the Blair bubble, dressed an unemployed musician in a yellow-feathered costume and sent him off to stalk the Labour leader. In turn, The Mirror newspaper (a mostly sports-and-skin tabloid whose slogan remains “Loyal to Labour”) sent a chicken of its own into battle. Feathers have flown. The Mirror chicken fought the Tory chicken. A Tory press officer had to wrestle the Mirror chicken to the pavement when it tried to accost Major one morning. And the Tory chicken has spent most of its time at Labour rallies dodging attempts by Blair’s supporters to rip its head off. Only one has succeeded so far. The chicken, say the planners
at Tory headquarters, “will continue to flutter around” until the May 1 polling day.
Nothing, however, matched the media frenzy that followed the entrance into politics of BBC war correspondent Martin Bell as an “anti-sleaze” candidate against Tory MP Neil Hamilton. The holder of one of the safest Tory seats in the land, Hamilton is accused of—and has partly admitted to—secretly taking cash and gifts from Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed in return for lobbying on his behalf. Like Merchant, Hamilton ignored the hints from Tory bigwigs to drop out of the race. So the opposition parties smacked their lips and hit on the idea of pulling their candidates in favor of a single, independent crusader who might have a chance of defeating Hamilton. They settled on Bell, a correspondent celebrated for his brave and impassioned reports from the Bosnian front, who told a packed news conference near Westminster that he was “as nonpolitical as you get.”
Unfortunately for Bell, that self-assessment was right: he is a political amateur in the worst sense of the word. When he arrived in the affluent northwest England constituency with the national media in tow, Hamilton barged up to him in a playground-
style confrontation and demanded to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Strangely, Bell agreed, leaving open the question of why, then, he was running, and what “sleaze” he was rooting out. A day later, the former war reporter suddenly discovered the language of the political pros. He said he was running only to answer a popular groundswell in the constituency (where he had spent a total of one day before declaring). And he attacked his former employers at the BBC for “biased” coverage against him. “Martin is a pompous prat whose candidacy is a stunt, a gimmick, and wholly unimpressive,” says Guardian media columnist Roy Greenslade. Hamilton
was even more succinct about his rival. “He seems like a nice guy—totally unfitted for politics.”
What Bell and the chicken and Merchant’s indiscretions have done, however, is keep the headlines away from any issue that could damage Blair. The Tories wanted to fight this election on the economy, which is enjoying
a good run of health.
But they lost the plot for the precious first three weeks of the campaign. “The Tories are playing stupid politics,” says Bob Worcester, the doyen of Britain’s pollsters. Worcester points out that on the issues voters consider to be most important—health care, education, unemployment and pensions—Labour is overwhelmingly regarded as the most competent. The Tories have a big lead in handling the economy. But Major—when he can be heard above the cries of “sleaze”—has instead attacked Labour’s constitutional policies and its ties to trade unions. Neither issue is of much concern to voters.
As the campaign headed into its final three weeks, the Tories got some oxygen from a couple of polls that showed Blair’s lead narrowing slightly. “Blair is cracking under the strain,” chortled Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, the Tories’ most qualified political street fighter. Conservatives have seized on a couple of Blair flip-flops and now think they can paint him as untrustworthy. They seem set to open a nasty, negative campaign. That promises more great headlines, but two years of attacking Blair have not dented his poll numbers. “Nothing, not even a war, could lose this election for Blair,” says Worcester. Not even the chicken. □
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