Could Labour lose?

The campaign was so long expected and a third Blair victory so often predicted that many assume the result is already settled. But a Tory revival, job fears in the Midlands and the continued unpopularity of the PM are keeping the contest wide open. It's all to play for. And all to lose, as 'IoS' Political Editor Andy McSmith reports
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It has been a bit of a phoney war up until now, but from today the guns will really begin pounding the enemy trenches. Michael Howard will be in Telford, accusing Tony Blair of "pussyfooting" around the issue of immigration. Gordon Brown will be in Shipley, attacking the alleged incoherence of Conservative economic policy.

It has been a bit of a phoney war up until now, but from today the guns will really begin pounding the enemy trenches. Michael Howard will be in Telford, accusing Tony Blair of "pussyfooting" around the issue of immigration. Gordon Brown will be in Shipley, attacking the alleged incoherence of Conservative economic policy.

Around Birmingham the air is thick with political accusations and counterclaims after the sudden collapse of Rover. The Tories blame the Government, while Mr Brown has announced that the huge pay awards which the firm's managers gave themselves are to be investigated.

Mr Blair is in the North-east today, undergoing the curiously British formality of being formally adopted as the candidate for the Sedgefield Constituency Labour Party. No upset forecast there.

Tomorrow at 7.30am, the nation's political correspondents will be seen trooping bleary-eyed into the Liberal Democrat headquarters for the first of the morning press conferences. Charles Kennedy's view is that people do not like the macho slanging match between the main parties, and that his is the one that is picking up support faster than any other.

Over the next three days, the parties will publish manifestos, and after that will come the relentless weeks of canvassing and campaigning until decision day on 5 May. Unlike four years ago, this is a genuine contest in which the experts cannot predict the result with confidence. Though the headline figures from opinion polls look good for the Government, there are underlying signs that look very bad. Some of the specialists admit that on present evidence, the outcome could be another three-figure majority for Labour, or it could be no majority at all.

The latter possibility would be a shattering blow for Labour, a prospect so grim that it has caused the leaders of the warring sides in the most interesting political conflict of our time to declare a truce and fight side by side. This refers, of course, to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The Prime Minister has had to undo the palace coup he organised last year, which would have consigned the Chancellor to a peripheral role in the campaign, after which he might have lost his job. Instead, Tony and Gordon will be on the road together all this week, like the Two Ronnies reviving their successful double act.

Peace was brokered over Easter by Alastair Campbell, who paid a family visit to the Brown home in Fife. While the Campbell children played with the toddler John Brown, their father agreed on behalf of the Blairites that the Chancellor could reoccupy his old place at the heart of the Labour election campaign.

The Tony and Gordon show got off to an exasperating start at a press conference last week, when the Prime Minister came perilously close to losing his temper with a broadcast journalist who besieged him with questions about relations with his Chancellor, when he wanted to talk about tax and public services.

One witness who was at Labour's campaign headquarters as they rehearsed before the press conference said: "It was like there was nobody else in the room - just Tony and Gordon asking each other what the line was."

But when the press conference was under way, the Prime Minister was at a rostrum - his subdued purple tie matching the subdued purple backdrop - gesturing with his arms, and rubbing his chin in frustration as he battled to keep to the subject of public services and away from strains within the Cabinet.

While the exchange was frustrating, it was not unforeseen. "We're not daft. Everyone was expecting it. But you have got to go through the pain barrier of answering the obvious questions, so that we can get people to talk about the policy issues."

The following day, no fewer than 57 Labour MPs packed their bags and said their final goodbye to the House of Commons, knowing that they will not be coming back. That is nearly twice the number of Labour MPs who retired voluntarily at the last election. By contrast, only 15 Tories are pulling out this time - three of them forced out by their own party.

Some of the departing Labour MPs were ripe for retirement, like the Father of the House, Tam Dalyell. But there are Labour MPs even older than Mr Dalyell staying to fight another election, including Dennis Skinner, 73, Alan Williams and Sir Gerald Kaufman, both 74, and the oldest of the lot, Piara Khabra, aged 80. All have seats with huge majorities.

At the same time, much younger MPs with slender majorities, like the defence minister Ivor Caplin, 46, in Hove, or the arts minister Estelle Morris, 52, in Birmingham Yardley, have quit. The suspicion must be that they are going because they did not think they could win another election, though, of course, they deny it.

Mr Blair wants the campaign to be straightforward. He hopes that voters will look at the Tory proposal to reduce taxation below the level planned by Labour, consider the probable consequences for essential public services, and make up their minds accordingly. But, for a lot of people, the election is now about whether they trust the Prime Minister.

Last week, Mr Blair, unusually, came off worst in a Commons joust with Michael Howard, who taunted him about how few Labour MPs wanted to put the Prime Minister's photograph on their election literature this time, a sign that he personally is not the vote-puller he once was.

The gnawing fear at the back of Mr Blair's mind is not that he could lose outright, but that having won on the battlefield, Labour could come back looking more like Napoleon's army returning from Moscow than Wellington after Waterloo.

There will be 646 seats in the new House of Commons. Of these, 403, including the Speaker's, were won by Labour in 2001. If Labour were to lose 80 seats, it would leave - taking out the Speaker and his three deputies - 321 Labour MPs facing 321 opposition MPs, putting every contentious piece of government legislation at risk. Mr Blair's time as leader of the Labour Party would soon be over after losses on such a scale.

Last week, for the first time, the Conservatives appeared to climb out of the slough they have been stuck in for a decade. Their support at general elections or in national opinion polls has almost never risen above 33 per cent since 1992, until last week's polls put them a precious point or two above that level.

There has also been a large shift in support from Labour to the Liberal Democrats since 2001. The polls suggest an eight per cent swing to Charles Kennedy's party since then. According to the BBC swingometer, that alone would unseat about 40 Labour MPs, even if the Tory vote were static. There is also the unanswerable question of how many voters will actually turn out on polling day. Labour is desperate to get turnout back to somewhere like normal after the drastic fall to below 60 per cent in 2001. The most recent Mori poll suggested that if 79 per cent of voters turn out, Labour will win with a comfortable 100-seat majority.

However, though the Tories have fewer natural supporters than Labour, they are more likely to turn out to vote. According to the same Mori poll, if turnout fell to 55 per cent, there would be a hung Parliament, with more than 80 Labour seats lost. The casualties would include the Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, in Bolton West.

Such calculations assume that voting patterns will be the same across Great Britain. But the experts agree that there could be wild variations in what has been called the "don't know" election. In some places, Labour could continue to benefit from the electorate's habit of backing whichever candidate has the best chance of defeating the Tory. In others, Labour could suffer from a "tactical unwind" as the non-Tory vote splinters.

Some experts think that Jim Knight has a better chance of survival in Dorset South, where his majority is just 153, than Oona King, defending a 10,057 majority in Bethnal Green & Bow against the former Labour MP George Galloway.

The electorate has been lulled half to sleep by a long series of polls showing Tony Blair cruising back to a third-term victory. Labour's nightmare now is that voters will sleepwalk through polling day and find out the following morning that they have sacked the Prime Minister.