Unglaze your eyes: the magic number is 76

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On Wednesday Mr Michael Howard succeeded in embarrassing not only Mr Tony Blair but the Labour backbenchers as well. Whether these small triumphs matter a jot, or even a tittle, is less clear. Their chief effect is temporarily to cheer up the benches on the victor's side and (since every action has an equal and opposite reaction) to depress those on the other side of the chamber. What Mr Howard did, among other things, was to ask Labour members to show how many of them had put Mr Blair's picture on the front of their election manifestos.

Some of them put their hands up, hesitantly, as if they did not know quite whether they were demonstrating their loyalty to the Central Committee or playing the Leader of the Opposition's game. One of them, more loyal than most, actually put up two hands. Mrs Ann Clwyd, the member for Kurdistan and Cynon Valley (which used to be Aberdare before the Welsh-language-crazed Boundary Commissioners got hold of it), tentatively raised an arm. She was immediately persuaded to put it down again by her nextdoor neighbour, Mrs Alice Mahon, who sits for Halifax and takes a different view of the Iraq war. She remains friendly with Mrs Clwyd. Perhaps all this affecting tale shows is that, on the Labour benches, personal friendship can survive political differences; or, at any rate, among the women it can.

It has turned into a very odd sort of election. For most people, including most broadcasters and print journalists who are not themselves involved with politics, it remains "boring". For true aficionados, however, it has turned into something quite interesting. This is a recent change. Up to a few weeks ago, those who took an interest in politics were as lacking in enthusiasm as the rest; perhaps more so. The simple explanation is that the Conservatives have begun to do better in the polls.

There was a falling off in Conservative support after Mr Gordon Brown's Budget. It was then thought that Mr Howard's hysterical performance in the Howard Flight affair would damage him. It certainly kept matters he would have preferred to raise instead off the front pages. Strangely - or perhaps it is not strange at all - the candidate who has been chosen to succeed in Arundel, Mr Nick Herbert, is an even greater paladin of economy than Mr Flight, if that were possible. Some of the things he has written in The Spectator would make your hair stand on end, if I had both the room and the enthusiasm to summarise them for you.

But neither Mr Brown nor Mr Flight seems to have had the favourable effect for Labour that was at first confidently predicted. There is, it seems to be agreed, something funny going on. Several weeks ago in this column I suggested it might be something funny as in 1970, when the Labour government lost an election it was virtually unanimously expected to win. No, no, several colleagues have said: it is much more like 1987, when Neil Kinnock was praised on all sides for his conduct of the campaign, the Conservatives were quarrelling among themselves and Margaret Thatcher was duly returned with a majority of 102.

All historical parallels are misleading, but some are less so than others. In 1970, I remember, the balance of payments figures were distorted unfavourably, from the government's point of view, by the purchase of a jumbo jet. The release of the figures, it was subsequently claimed, cost Labour the election. Ah, the balance of payments: the very name was like a knell! Whoever hears of it now? It must still exist, hidden away in official reports, pored over in the dark watches of the Treasury nights. At one time it dominated our politics. But Mr Brown carries on as if he does not have to bother his head, still less our heads, with such matters.

Rover is different. We can see a car or an empty factory on our television screens, and hear the justified complaints uttered in the accents of the West Midlands. The Government's only consolation is that, when you come down to it, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats would do anything very different. But the comfort is small. It does not mean that on that account people are going to carry on voting Labour. Why on earth should they?

It is like the Iraq war. All those who opposed the war are not going to turn round and vote for Mr Charles Kennedy. Some will, of course: not only those who would otherwise have supported Labour but a few Conservatives as well. The majority of Conservatives who opposed the war will carry on voting in their usual way. It was not, after all, their government that got us into the mess in the first place, whatever the Opposition may have said at the time.

The question is whether, on balance, the voters will cease behaving as they did in 1997 and 2001, reverting to a previous pattern - or unite against Mr Blair. It is the difference between tactical unwind and tactical voting against Labour. The two concepts are often confused but they are distinct and can, indeed, be opposed to each other in their practical application. In tactical unwind, you would vote for your party irrespective of the consequences; in the new style of tactical voting, for the party that was most likely to defeat Mr Blair in an individual constituency. The latter course would be most likely to produce the House of Commons that most voters now seem to want.

Then there are the seats whose loss deprives Labour of its absolute majority. The calculation is not quite as simple as it may appear at first sight. When I raise this question on licensed premises or in similar places, the eyes of my auditors tend to glaze over. But it is worth making the effort, or so I like to think. On 6 May, it may turn out to be crucial. Who can tell?

At the 2001 election Labour won 413 seats, including the Speaker's. But the size of the House has been diminished from 659 to 646. Of the 13 vanished seats, all in Scotland, 10 were held by Labour. This gives us a true Labour strength of 403. We deduct one for the Speaker, one for his Labour deputy Mrs Sylvia Heal (whose seat at Halesowen is in any case in peril because of the Rover factor) and two for the by-election losses. However, we count Glasgow Kelvin as a Labour seat, even though Mr George Galloway is fighting Bethnal Green for Respect - I hope he wins - and we likewise include Mr Paul Marsden's Shrewsbury seat as Labour. This brings the true Labour strength down to 399.

Simple subtraction of 323, half the size of the new House, gives us 76, the number of seats whose loss deprives the Government of its majority. Oddly enough, this is precisely the number which Harold Wilson's government lost between 1966 and the general election of 1970.

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