Tone the people's champion steps on to hustings

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair yesterday continued his honeymoon with the voters on the streets of Uxbridge where the Conservatives are fighting to avoid losing their seat in the by-election on Thursday.

The shopping precinct provided the rare spectacle of a serving Prime Minister who is popular with the people on the hustings. He was mobbed by well-wishers. They shook him by the hand, got his autograph, and pushed children forward to meet him. A youth with an earring grabbed him by the hand and said: "Good luck Tone - you're our champion, mate." A dustbin lorry went by, hooting the support of the binmen.

In the middle of the High Street a blonde threw her arms round the Prime Minister, and planted a kiss on his cheek. Kate Brooks, who voted Conservative in 1992 but switched to Labour on 1 May, had waited all morning to meet him. "I used to be a Tory but he has transformed the Labour Party and made them very electable. He has made a terrific Prime Minister."

He shrugged off the Tories' attempt to spoil his arrival by fielding a rarer bird, a Euro-sceptic Labour deserter, and the appearance of Michael Portillo, who lost his own seat in the landslide, but was out campaigning for the Tory candidate, John Randall as a sign of his ambition to re-enter Parliament, providing there is a safer prospect on offer.

The Tories are exploiting the resentment among some local Labour activists at the imposition of Andrew Slaughter, a former political adviser to Michael Meacher, as the Labour candidate to replace David Williams, who stood for Labour only two months ago. The only heckling came from a silver-haired man, asking why they did not have a local Labour candidate.

Mr Blair was offering no apologies for the switch of candidates. "When you represent a place, you have to represent it in Westminster. You have to cut the ice there and make an impact. I think people want someone who is going to really stand up and be counted, and make an impact, rather than someone who is going to disappear into the unknown," he said.

His speech was almost word for word what he said on the hustings in the general election. His reception had not changed, but it cannot last, and Labour spin doctors know that it does not mean they will win on Thursday.

It is the first test of public opinion since the election, and William Hague's election as the Tory leader. The Tories will claim that Mr Blair's honeymoon is over, if they win. If they do not hold on to Uxbridge, which is a solidly Tory seat, it will be a severe blow to Mr Hague's hopes of rebuilding party morale.