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Friday, 1 June, 2001, 21:20 GMT 22:20 UK
Thatcher's cool strategy
William Hague
Hague: Still in the driving seat
Mark Mardell

In the words of an ITN reporter I have just listened to, Britain's doctors are not going to throw in the towel even though they are standing on the edge of an abyss.

Indeed they would be most unwise to do so. The towel tends to float gently into the abyss and gets lost for ever.

I don't know how, but in some mystical way I feel if only the doctors could have held on to the towel it would have helped them see the light at the end of the tunnel.

It's obvious that your average abyss should be able to cope with a landslide, but I am now wondering.

Has all Friday's Tory talk of landslides left the Conservatives in a similar towel-less situation?

thatcher
Thatcher: Hoping to save her towel from the abyss
Landslides, like so much in this life, are all a question of perspective.

If you are buried underneath them, their disadvantages become immediately apparent.

But hand on hips, taking in lungfuls of the fresh upland air, standing on top of the bodies of your enemies, they have an undoubted charm.

This of course is why Lady Thatcher has rather changed her mind about them.

When she had them they were simply something that made her job much easier.

She sacked a cabinet minister, Francis Pym, partly for suggesting she wasn't to be trusted with them.

Towel-throwing

But now she has told the world that Labour will be more arrogant, more dangerous if they get another one.

Indeed she has gone one further - suggesting that cutting Mr Blair's majority to zero is rather difficult to do in one go.

This is regarded by the simple-minded as "a gaffe".

As, to coin a phrase, throwing in the towel.

A gaffe so defined is a politician breaking out of their traditional role and embarrassingly telling the truth.

This is an irritating journalistic convention that is most often played out in by-elections.

William and Ffion Hague
All smiles: William and Ffion Hague
Even if you are standing for the "Adopt the metric pound, ban the fruitcake" party, whose only voters in the previous 14 elections in which you've stood are your mum and the lady from the now sadly defunct "No to fruitcakes now (consider the metric pound)" party, you will be expected by journalists to insist you can win.

They will hound you until you claim that you might be running a close second to the woman from the governing party who has a 45,000 majority over her nearest rival, the man for the opposition party.

This will be proclaimed as a gaffe.

When Charles Kennedy admits at the opening of the campaign that he's most unlikely to be the next prime minister, some gasp that he's had the temerity to say what we all know is a simple truth.

Strategy

So when Lady Thatcher says what is stunningly obvious, and has been since 1997, that William Hague has a heck of a mountain to climb, it is to some a gaffe.

It's not.

It's a strategy. For a couple of years Labour insiders have been telling a story with some dread.

It is evidently true although there are some variations on it, as Nick Robinson notes elsewhere on this site suggest.

There once was a Labour leader, a lawyer, a family man.

Warning

The voters liked him but he hadn't delivered everything they wanted and they thought him a bit too smug.

The opposition, knowing that no one wanted them in power, campaigned on the slogan "Send Labour a message".

This was Queensland, Australia and the conservative opposition (called Liberals) won by about half a per cent.

Lady Thatcher, or anyone else, warning of a Labour landslide has several benefits for the Conservatives.

For a start it has the merit of being backed up by the evidence of the polls.

Fed up

If there is going to be a Labour landslide and you are:

a) A loyal but lazy Labour voter
b) A slightly disgruntled Leftie
c) A disillusioned swing voter who still doesn't want to see William Hague as Prime Minister

... then you can stay at home and Labour will still win.

If on the other hand you are:

a) Fed up with Labour but not sure who would be better
b) A Conservative Europhile who hates the save the pound policy
c) A swing voter who basically likes William Hague but is not sure he's ready to become prime minister

... you can safely vote Conservative to teach Labour a lesson.

And of course if you are a loyal Conservative the suggestion of a Labour landslide will incense you and make you go out and vote.

All of which depresses the Labour vote and increases the Conservative one.

As gaffes go, it's a pretty cool strategy.

As the saying goes a landslide in hand is worth a logjam in the bush - and it could save your towel from the abyss.

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