The sands run out for a jaded Cabinet

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Will boredom set in, attention switch off? Possibly, but there are advantages to a long election campaign. Soundbites cannot fill six weeks. Much of the media attention will inevitably be on personalities and the gaffes and goofs that attend every campaign. But the parties, which complain that not even the serious papers now pay proper attention to debates in Parliament or to major speeches around the country, have an unprecedented opportunity to set out their stalls and promote their wares. This can be an election of issues, which is what all the parties claim they want it to be.

No single theme looks like dominating. Not the threat to the unity of the United Kingdom nor fear of alleged Labour profligacy, as the Conservative s would like. Nor the state of public services, as the opposition parties want to keep at the heart of the matter. There should be opportunity to go through a whole agenda.

Cynicism about the political process, which was so pronounced during the succession of sleaze stories and scandals, does not signal a death of democratic involvement. Ask people worried about the safety of the food they eat. Look at the passion that animates environmental protests. Remember the thousands of demonstrators against underfunding of schools.

Fewer people than in previous generations have implicit faith in one party or another. But most will still judge one potential Government preferable to another, one constituency candidate more credible than the rest. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that his biggest threat comes from the widespread belief that it is time for a change. Eighteen years in power is not only an uncommonly long time for one party to predominate, but it makes an administration look tired. The mistakes - epitomised by the catalogue attributable to Douglas Hogg - outweigh the achievements, such as the current economic buoyancy for which in other times Kenneth Clarke might reasonably expect some credit.

Generally in Scotland and particularly among those associated with public services, the Conservatives' record looks indefensible. Few teachers and probably even fewer Health Service employees will vote Tory. The legacy of the Thatcher years has been impossible to eliminate. John Major, buttressed by an unexpected election victory, had the opportunity to re-establish the social virtues. His Government preferred to preside over private greed. Had the financial stringency imposed on education and health been applied universally, people might have accepted underfunding. But struggling against the odds, they have been appalled by the ease with which money from once public utilities has flowed into a few private pockets.

The Government has failed a moral as well as management test. No doubt over the election campaign it will win back some of its previous supporters, at least south of the border. But at this stage its time appears to have run out. Labour would ride to victory on that feeling alone. It should resist the temptation. Whether it would be a Government with backbone remains to be seen. A constructive approach to the election campaign would be a good start.

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