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.

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