Blair goes straight for prime target

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The Independent Online
Labour's election bandwagon made its first stop yesterday in the party's most crucial campaign target - the Gloucester seat which the party must win if Tony Blair is to become prime minister. The seat is 46th on Labour's target list and it must be won if the party is to have an overall Commons majority.

The party's immediate response to yesterday's announcement was low key, and Mr Blair spent the morning visiting a primary school in Southwark, south London, before leaving for a question and answer session with floating voters.

With Labour's main aim being to avoid damaging its 20-point poll lead over the coming weeks, the sight of Mr Blair dabbling in a sandpit must have been one to warm the hearts of the spin doctors. That over, he headed for the station en route for Gloucester where, accompanied by his wife Cherie, he met 20 voters in the Jarvis Hotel and Country Club.

The portents, however, were not good. The hotel boasts a Sebastian Coe health club, named after the Tory MP for Falmouth and Camborne, and next door's dry-ski slope prompted "All downhill from here then" quips from the assembled press.

His audience, chosen through telephone polling, was receptive and pliant, though two of them admitted to being party members. Mr Blair told them he planned several more such shirtsleeved encounters over the coming weeks.

"One of the things we want to do is to go out and talk to people. Not presidential-style glitz and glamour but really talking to people. We don't have all the answers by any means but we think we offer a better future for the country," he said.

He told them that the campaign would be the longest since 1918, but added that he was relishing the prospect. "For me it already feels as if we have been having a campaign for months and months and months. What I feel is the Government haven't really been governing this country for quite a long time," he said.

But Mr Blair added that the campaign could be a dirty one. "The next election will be a battle between hope and fear. People will be saying Labour is going to do this to you and do that to you. We have got to settle and reassure people."

The Labour Party would govern the country as it has run its own affairs in the past few years, he said, adding: "We are running for office as New Labour and we are going to govern as New Labour. There is no going back."

Most of Mr Blair's audience appeared impressed. One or two said they had already been out canvassing for the party. Graham Pepperell, who had not yet made up his mind but was "leaning towards Labour", said he would be more likely now to vote for Tess Kingham, the party's Gloucester candidate.

"Mr Blair came across as quite sincere, but he's like a lot of politicians, they are quick to renege. But he's a young man and if he wants to establish a long career in politics he will try to deliver the goods," he said.

Mr Blair's train journey had been somewhat less elevating, though. Commuters on the 3.18pm sprinter from Swindon had bemusement writ large on their faces as the Blair entourage boarded. At Paddington one woman passenger had nudged her neighbour, "Look there's Tony Blair. He's the next Prime Minister."

"Who did you say he was?" came the reply.