Ratings leave Tories crestfallen

LONDON, MAY 20. ``What must Labour do to lose this election?'' asked an exasperated The Sunday Telegraph, its patience with its Tory patrons clearly running out, as the latest opinion poll showed a further rise in Labour lead despite a week of embarrassing hiccups for the party.

Tories were expecting a slow-down of the Labour juggernaut after the Prescott punch-up and other demonstrations of public disillusionment with the Blair Government, witnessed last week, but in the event, their own rating slumped to a new low, dropping by another two points behind Labour.

Tory supporters were understandably devastated and a senior party adviser was quoted as saying: ``I really don't understand the polls at all. I'm not saying we will win, but I am sure they do not reflect the truth on the ground.'' The Sunday Telegraph, a true-blue Tory, was equally puzzled what was going on as it judged the polls against a raft of humiliations suffered by Labour stalwarts last week - ``John Prescott (Deputy Prime Minister) punched a voter, Tony Blair was harangued (for poor health service), Jack Straw (Home Secretary) was slow handclapped (by police officers) - and the Conservatives are slipping even further behind.''

There were reports of a rift in the party with Mr. William Hague's campaign strategy which, his critics said, was targeted almost solely at its core supporters. The effort, they said, should be to win new converts by appealing to floating voters who tended to be more open to persuasion. The party's advertising agency was reported to be unhappy with Mr. Hague's focus on tax and Europe to the exclusion of issues such as the state of public services in which people are more interested.

``The campaign has become shrill and strident and less focussed on wider issues. It is turning floating voters off'', a party leader told a newspaper reflecting a growing unease that the campaign was losing momentum after a promising start.

The media detected signs of panic in Tory ranks after the party discontinued its traditional morning press briefing following some tough questions on its tax agenda. Mr. Hague himself has been avoiding the media with journalists covering his campaign complaining that he refuses to speak to the press. Labour has accused him of running ``scared'' and a senior Cabinet Minister said Mr. Hague ``doesn't have the guts'' to face questions.

The veteran Tory, Sir Edwarth Heath, who never concealed his dislike for Mr. Hague, attacked him for pushing the party further to the Right and said this was turning people off. He said, in an interview to The Independent on Sunday, that the Tories needed another defeat in order to be forced back to the centre.

Meanwhile, as the campaign entered the fourth week, Labour promised to crack down on paedophiles and the growing incidence of child abuse through the Net. Tories hit back accusing Labour of stealing their ideas - a charge they instinctively make everytime Labour makes a new announcement.