Mr Mandelson may have a point, after all

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The Independent Online

As Harold Macmillan remarked during the Profumo affair: I do not move much among young people. For that reason, I am unable to tell you first-hand about the way in which the members of Mr Tony Blair's entourage responded to the result of the Spanish general election. But by most accounts they were profoundly shocked. The world - at any rate, their world - had been turned upside-down.

It was bad enough that a socialist was being installed in office in Madrid, as far removed from New Labour as he was from, well, Mr George Bush. What was even worse was that he had displaced a friend and ally of Mr Blair. And what was worst of all was that it had happened because of the invasion of Iraq, a topic from which Mr Blair and Mr Gordon Brown alike are anxious to divert our attention. Notoriously, the Spanish are an excitable people. But we are not as calm as we once were, not by any means. There was no knowing where it might all end.

Luckily, Mr Robert Worcester, the famous poller of public opinion, was available to provide reassurance. He appeared on BBC television news to tell us that, as the Conservatives had supported the war in Iraq - if anything, even more zealously than the Government had waged it - there was no danger that the electors would start voting for the Opposition, as those fickle Spaniards had so recently done.

My own opinion is that pollsters should not act as comforters for any government. Nor should the BBC broadcast their views, certainly not with the prominence it gave to Mr Worcester's opinions. But then, the Corporation has been behaving very oddly in its post-Hutton phase. It has even been plugging a series on Mozart by playing music (even if arranged by Mozart) actually composed by Handel.

But this is to fall into the English fallacy in controversy: not to ask whether what so-and-so said was true but whether he had any business saying it. And what Mr Worcester said on television was highly questionable. For one thing, the Conservatives have a different leader from the politician who was vigorously supporting the Government during the war. For another, this new leader is trying to make out that a Conservative government would somehow have behaved differently - in precisely what respects, he is not at all clear - in the Middle Eastern adventure of last year.

In reality, about the only leading Tories who can take this line are Mr Douglas Hogg, Sir Peter Tapsell and, above all, Mr Kenneth Clarke, who anticipated the very events which have come about, as much in Spain as in Iraq itself. Mr Michael Howard was conspicuous by his silence. As Mr Iain Duncan Smith's Shadow Chancellor, he had no choice but to agree with his leader's aggressively pro-American views. In any case, he is himself sympathetic to those views - as the real Chancellor of the Exchequer is also. If I were in Mr Howard's position (which thank the Lord I'm not, sir), I should observe a period of silence about Iraq.

For people do not punish one party and reward another after a careful evaluation of policies, past or present. No one has believed that they do since the democratic theorists of the 19th century. The events of the last century, many of them deplorable, show that people cast their vote for all kinds of reasons, often contradictory. To take one fairly harmless example: in 1965-75 the Liberals enjoyed several successes at by-elections. Asked why they were voting Liberal, the citizens (mostly though not invariably former Conservatives) would explain that they were disgusted by the way in which Enoch Powell was being treated and they were accordingly making a protest.

But there is no need to postulate perversity on any grand scale. There is a perfectly rational alternative to Labour, voting for whom on account of the Iraq war would satisfy the criteria of John Stuart Mill himself: I mean the Liberal Democrats. Mr Charles Kennedy has been criticised adversely both during the war and afterwards for not making a bigger noise. I criticised him in this column for opposing the war beforehand but - unlike, say, Mr Robin Cook - for keeping quiet after British troops had gone into action. But politically, it seems he was correct in his judgement. Certainly he and the Liberal Democrats have not been splashed from the patriotic paint-pot as Hugh Gaitskell and the Labour Party were after Suez.

There is another reason. Though there are parallels between 1956 and 2003, at Suez we were fighting as allies of the French in a war opposed by the United States: we were not the junior partners. And the Suez war had greater support than the Iraq war enjoyed, at the time or now, not only among Tories but in Labour's old working-class constituencies.

Accordingly the political topic of the week is not Mr Brown's Budget but whether enough Labour voters to make a difference defect either to the Conservatives or, more disturbingly, to the Liberal Democrats. Mr Peter Mandelson has devoted an entire speech to the subject. In some circles this is taken to mean that the speech was inspired by Mr Blair or, at least, that he gave it his imprimatur of approval. There is no need to go quite as far as this. It is enough to note that the prospect of Labour defections to the Liberal Democrats is causing alarm among what Sherlock Holmes used to call the very highest in the land.

It is not that many Labour seats are threatened. Where the Lib Dems come second to Labour, as they do in 47 seats, it is almost always in Labour castles. I can think of only a few where they might take over. No: the danger, according to Mr Mandelson, is that a vote for the Liberal Democrat will let the Tory into Westminster and hence Mr Howard into No 10. And though, for understandable rhetorical reasons, he is probably exaggerating, about the general effect he is almost certainly correct. We may end up with that phenomenon which has been undiscussed since the early 1980s, when the fear was that disillusioned Conservatives might turn to that sensible Mr David Steel, that nice Mr Roy Jenkins or - most worryingly of all for the Tories - that bellicose Dr David Owen. We may end up with a hung Parliament.

Ministers and their hangers-on in the press are now adopting a pleading, almost plaintive tone. Would we sacrifice all that Mr Blair and Mr Brown have achieved or, at any rate, promised merely for the sake of a silly little war in a faraway country of which we know nothing? Some people are so ungrateful for all they have received - such as an extra £1.92 a week for one year to pay the council tax - that they might, just, be prepared to make the sacrifice.