Views of a saloon bar focus group

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The Independent Online

"Think the Tories are in with a chance, then?" said the man with the dog.

"Think the Tories are in with a chance, then?" said the man with the dog.

There was a general groan. In our pub, there are several house rules. Well, only two, actually. One is never to mention Esther Rantzen or Madonna. The other is not to discuss party politics, unless it's election time. We turned to the landlord for a ruling.

"Joe, are politics in season?"

"Difficult one," he said. "They haven't actually called a general election yet, but everyone is behaving as if there is going to be one, and we all assume it'll be May. So, yes, I think for a limited time you could talk politics."

"Reason I mentioned it," said the man with the dog, "is that I have started seeing articles asking that very question. 'Could the Tories pull it off?' We have been told for years that New Labour are going to sweep back in, no problem, so how on earth can the Tories win? Especially under Howard?"

"Easy," said the lady with the purple hair. (She's on the sloe gin right now.) "Labour are scared their supporters won't come out to vote. Complacency is the enemy. So they plant pieces in the papers saying the Tories might get in, to frighten their own voters into coming out to vote."

"Well," said the man with the dog, "I am not sure Labour actually have their own voters any more. I think the last 10 years have turned the electorate into a consumerist electorate. They see the parties as rival brands. An election is just about switching brands, that's all."

"Stuff and nonsense," said the resident Welshman. "There are still big divisions. There are still loads of people who could never bring themselves to vote Tory. Or Labour. Or indeed vote at all."

"Hold on," said the Major, who had just come in. "I thought you always maintained that British elections were won when people voted against something, not for something. Get the Tories out. Bring Major down. That sort of thing."

"Well, that too," said the Welshman, "but the trouble is that this time a lot of people have become disenchanted with Blair, and don't want to vote for him again, but can't see who else to go for."

"I think what might bring Blair down is if his scaremongering on AMDs backfires," said the Major.

"What's that?" said someone. "AMDs?"

"Agents of Mass Destruction," said the Major. "You see, with this anti-terrorism bill he's using exactly the same tactics he did to get us into Iraq. Then, he said there are terrible weapons which can be used against us at 45 minutes' notice. They never found them. Now, he tell us, there are agents who can blow up the country unless we allow Charles Clarke to lock them up in their own homes. AMDs, I call them. Think they really exist? I don't think so. I think he's been sexing up security intelligence to scare us. Alastair Campbell behind it again, probably."

We thought about this for a moment. It seemed horribly plausible.

"There is another reason why they might be so keen on house arrest," said the purple lady. "It's to save money. If you lock people up in their own houses, you don't have to build prisons for them."

"Maybe that's why they're letting prisoners go home at weekends," said the man with the dog. "Make more space for the rest. The way we're going, we'll soon be having timeshare in prisons."

"Mark you," said the Welshman, "I'm not surprised the peers and MPs were so doubtful about house arrest. They'd been under house arrest themselves for days. Sleeping rough in the Lords. Confined to the Commons in case a vote was called. Upper house arrest and lower house arrest. They'd had a taste of it and didn't like it."

At that moment the landlord rang his bell.

"Time to change the subject," he said. "Enough politics. Anyone like to discuss the Charles and Camilla stamps?"

We groaned, and talked about football instead.