Opinion: Flight fiasco sends Tories into a tailspin

Deep down we all knew it was too good to last. Just as everyone, including me, was heaping praise on the Tory election campaign someone just had to come along and blow it all apart.

Howard has really cocked it up this time. Not Howard Flight but Michael. Yes it's the Tory leader who is responsible for the blunder that has almost certainly thrown away any tiny chance of election victory. He committed the cardinal campaign sin of ensuring a bad story was extended into an awful one by keeping it going for days and days.

It would be difficult to imagine a worse story for the Conservative Party than to have such a senior figure concede that the party intends to cut public services more than it has admitted. Not only does this ring true with the voters, but it is exactly the issue on which the Labour Party wants to campaign the hardest. Even Alan Milburn is smiling.

The word around Westminster is that the Labour campaign team under Fraser Kemp runs a 'dirty tricks' operation or, to give it the official title, 'Operation Blackwatch'. Kemp's job is to organise infiltration into Tory meetings on 'gaffe watch' and it's my hunch that's how a tape of the Flight speech found its way to the The Times newsdesk.

Once it was out in the open, Michael Howard's notoriously short temper got the better of him. One can understand his anger, but the Tory leader should have counted to ten. He certainly should have waited to see how the newspapers reacted a day later. Far better to accept the MP's resignation as deputy chairman and vigorously claim that his remarks had been misinterpreted.

This way the bad news story for the Tories would have only lasted a few days. But, as I write, it's still running and Flight's remarks have been taken much more seriously than they should have been.

It was equally obvious that Howard Flight was not going to take his sacking as an MP lying down. I have friends in his constituency party and they are horrified at their leader's over-reaction.

The problem is that the Tory leader wrongly believed that his 'tough' stance would show what a strong leader he is, just like Tony Blair. But the PM took his party with him over his 'tough' choices like Clause 4 and the new economic policy. Howard Flight's views, on the other hand, are certainly shared by the majority of Tory activists and of course it was the shadow chancellor himself who said something very similar during the last election campaign.

Before long there is bound to be a big Labour gaffe story. But my guess is that they will handle it much better than the Tories. After all they've had plenty of practice.

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