Election 1997: Shaken but finally stirred

Last week brought Labour's first campaign wobble and Tory talk of Blair 'cracking under the strain'. By Friday, Tony was back on top - and even perhaps the better for the challenge.

Last Tuesday, in Basildon, as the noon glare leapt from the concrete outside the Town Gate theatre, two young men stood waiting for Tony Blair. They were tall, about university age, and one of them wore a dark blue T-shirt. In large white letters, it read: "When Freedom Exists There Will Be No State."

Mr Blair had been indoors, in the cool with his invited audience, for over an hour. Out on the concrete, the first sweaty foreheads were appearing in the crowd. Distractions beckoned: from the shopping centre across the square, from McDonald's, with its salty waft of lunchtime, from the local Conservative and Lib Dem candidates who had turned up, with helpers, to offer stickers and anti-Labour scorn.

But the two young men did not move. They squinted; they refused the burgers and the stickers; and when Mr Blair left the theatre they were right at the front to grasp at him. "He can't help being late," said the young man in the anarchist T-shirt. Then, admiringly: "He's a busy guy."

On Tuesday, as on most days of this election campaign, and on most days since he became leader of the Labour party, Mr Blair seemed the sole applicant for the position of Prime Minister. His inevitable victory was there in the crowd's patience, in its eager surge towards him, in the melancholy void around the other parties' hopefuls. Basildon is a Conservative seat with a majority of over 2,000; yet, at one point during his hour in the theatre, Mr Blair had to point out: "We haven't been in power these last 18 years," as if the audience imagined him to be in Downing Street already.

Such confidence from the public must warm Labour after a generation in sunless opposition. Yet poll leads and crowd chants of "Three more weeks!" can bring problems too. For two days after Basildon Mr Blair and Labour became cautious to the point of passivity - they waited for victory. The whole campaign became a kind of extended interview, with every suspicion and frustration of the press, the populace and the other political parties directed at them.

Wednesday dawned jittery and blue as the day, five years before, when Labour lost the last general election. The Daily Telegraph's leading article asked an awkward question: "If Mr Blair were unhappily to die tomorrow... what exactly would be left of Labour?" With precise timing, Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, then amplified this doubt in a radio interview: the Labour leader, he said, was "cracking under the strain".

The party's morning press conference was fast and short. Mr Blair almost ran on to the stage. The video, speech and answers fitted each other as tightly as the carpet to the podium. Twice, especially favoured journalists were picked out from the forest of hands to ask a question; neither was planning to ask one.

By 10 o'clock, Mr Blair was on his way out of London. By 12, he was puttering through the Bristol docks in a canal boat, the sun on his busy cheeks and the press out of earshot. Mr Blair's boat was full of beautiful children, chosen from a local primary school in a marginal constituency, to symbolise Labour's plans to shrink class sizes. The vessel barely moved; instead, the press boat slowly circled it, cameras chattering. Mr Blair's smile and the children's blond hair shone against the deep green and red of the hull. The shouted questions fell short, into the cool, slack water. On the shore, hardly anyone was watching. A fisherman dozed, then woke up as the Blair boat passed, and gave a great arching wave. For half an hour, the campaign seemed to idle, comfortably listless beneath the almost Californian sky. Mr Blair's smile looked genuine.

Then his boat reached the quayside, busy with party members, the public and, soon, journalists. Mr Blair went straight for the party members, his jacket still off, not a drip of sweat on his loose white shirt. He clasped hands, touched arms, made small affectionate jokes about Cherie, his wife. Until a crowd barrier halted him. Behind it were the cameras and the microphones and the question that had been stewing all morning: was Mr Blair cracking up?

He took a step forward, turning his palms to his audience. Through the quayside trees, the light dappled his pale brown forehead, the lines round his eyes. "Do I look like someone who is cracking up?" Mr Blair said. "It's the Tories who are cracking up..." He turned away, the moment behind him. From the roof of the office block beyond the quay, three shirtless men blew a trumpet and shouted: "To-ny!"

To voters, the mere presence of Mr Blair seemed enough. In Exeter, his next stop, he spoke in stock phrases through an inadequate public address system. His voice was metallic and strained, his silhouette a bobbing dot against the bulk of his campaign bus - but it looked like vigour. Afterwards, a student teacher in a baseball cap told a friend: "We shook his hand! I think he could do for Britain what Kennedy did the States."

"Where are you voting?" asked the teacher's friend.

"I'm in Teignbridge," he said.

"So you should vote tactically, for the Lib Dems," she said.

"Yeah. That's a problem..." He looked back at where the bus stood. "After seeing this, maybe I'll go into politics."

By Thursday morning, he might have been reconsidering. All the week's flushed converts, all Labour's careful crowd scenes and Blair's grinning crack-up denials, had been as nothing. The papers had decided the party was in trouble. For three predictable, Labour-planned weeks, this story - the only possible fresh story - had grown more alluring. Now there was a poll to support it, a party fumble over privatisation, and Conservative briefings being offered with every ring of the phone.

Mr Blair's victory tour slowed almost to a stall. The venues were as safe as ever - a clean new school in Redditch, south of Birmingham; an engineering campus near Coventry, eager with postgraduates - but the manner of their visiting had changed. At the school, Mr Blair rushed past the pictures of the class trip to the European Parliament, and the photogenic small boy holding open the door. He cut short his question session with sixth-formers to disappear, for twice as long, with his phalanx of advisers.

Coventry, too, seemed more obstacle course than opportunity. Mr Blair began with a joke about "getting through the next 22 days"; he ended in a glass-walled enclosure with a robot, trying to avoid an embarrassing photograph. Finally, at almost six o'clock, he walked towards his helicopter. As he neared it, and the police waved the microphone-thrusters away, Mr Blair said softly and wearily, "OK, guys". They still wanted to ask about crack-ups.

For the course of that evening, you could sympathise. Mr Blair had felt his party failing before; now, for want of electoral excitement perhaps, or a fatal national attachment to familiar devils, the campaign was wobbling again. Newsnight speculated about a turning tide. New Labour, for all its praise from pundits, could still become No Labour, its leader most discredited of all.

Then Friday killed these thoughts. The Conservatives were restive about Europe again. The polls were steadying. And a speech Mr Blair had made in Plymouth, on Wednesday night, seemed suddenly more resonant. Twenty- five easy minutes in front of a party hall had swelled to something more. For nearly an hour, Mr Blair had repeated and exhorted, talked grandly of crusades and the future, even a mild social justice. It was barely reported, of course; Labour was supposed to be in crisis. But the speech was suggestive. If needed, perhaps, Tony Blair might do more than the minimum.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Extras
indybest
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Shift Supervisor

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to recent expansion and gro...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

    Recruitment Genius: Support Worker

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A rewarding opportunity to work with an easy-...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum