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The Tories are spiking all of Labour's big guns

Labour, with the same heavy artillery that served it in 1997 and 2001, is floundering

What may well prove to have been the decisive encounters in the 2005 election took place last week.

Labour brought up to the front line its heaviest artillery pieces. They were under the command of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. Their position had been carefully selected: the special Budget ammunition would be fired just a few weeks before the announcement of polling day. The fuses were prepared, the matches applied and huge explosions pushed the projectiles out of the cannons towards the enemy, whistling and whining as they went. Then what? Nothing, precisely nothing. No damage was done to Michael Howard and the Tories. For the very experienced Mr Brown had misunderstood the terrain. For the first time, he began to look like a general who is conducting the new war with the methods of the old.

Mr Brown started with his usual - and justified - boasts about the good performance of the economy, saying that there had been nothing like it since 1701.

I don't believe this impresses voters any longer. It did matter when the disastrous economic performance of Britain in the 1970s under Labour was still remembered. But that was 30 years ago. Now, full employment, low inflation and cheap interest rates are all taken for granted. Next, the Chancellor produced two measures designed to help substantial numbers of voters, the elderly and first-time home buyers. But neither of these had much impact. Mr Howard had already promised to do something similar for the first group. And younger electors looking closely at the doubling of the stamp duty threshold to £120,000 could see straight away that it wouldn't make much difference. These shells went straight over the enemy's heads and landed harmlessly to their rear.

Then Mr Howard's sharpshooters fired back. These were effective. "Vote now, pay later" is an excellent phrase. It plays to the electorate's fear that, when all is said and done, Labour is a high tax party. It is a slogan that the Tories can endlessly repeat. It is armour-piercing in the sense that it cannot be rebutted. Next day, a badly rattled Tony Blair took charge. It was time to use the Prime Minister's favourite weapon, deceit. He unveiled a poster that proclaimed: "Warning: the Tories will cut £35bn from public services" - the equivalent, we were informed, of sacking every doctor, nurse and teacher in the country. But again, the battlefield has changed. Nowadays, we can detect the poison gas of the Prime Minister's half-truths and non-truths before it reaches us. Thus, Nick Robinson, ITN's political editor, immediately asked Mr Blair: "Can you only win by distorting your opponents' policies?" The sacking-every-doctor-every-nurse-every-teacher exaggeration exactly resembles the false claim in the dodgy Iraq dossier that Saddam Hussein could fire weapons of mass destruction long distances within 45 minutes of the order being given.

If the Conservatives have learnt how to neutralise Labour's competent management of the economy, they have also worked out how to render inoperable Labour's other big gun, superior management of the public services. For they can use vivid case studies of any number of people who have been let down by one public service or another, whether it be by their hospitals, or by their children's schools, or by their local police. These disappointed customers will rejoice to come forward at election time and gain publicity for their stories.

The final element in the Tory election strategy is to trap Labour where it has no room to manoeuvre. The first example was abortion.MPs vote according to their consciences on this matter. So what Mr Howard said is that the law should be changed in the light of medical advances and that he would now vote for a reduction to a 20-week limit. This is an important issue for an increasing number of voters and it is hard to see what effective response Labour can make. It hasn't done so yet.

An even more telling example is the Human Rights Act. On Friday, Mr Howard said that he would repeal this legislation. He said it rewarded law-breakers, and mentioned as examples travellers, asylum-seekers and criminals. He said that under the Act, a convicted serial killer had been given hardcore porn in prison because of his right to information and freedom of expression. Then Mr Howard published an advertisement stating: "If you are a traveller you can bend planning law - building where you like thanks to the Human Rights Act". Again Labour is stuck. It passed the legislation in the first place.

Thus, Labour enters the general election with the same heavy armour and powerful artillery that served it so well in 1997 and 2001, yet finds itself floundering. Of course, Labour could substantially improve its chances of winning by postponing the poll so that it could replace Mr Blair with Mr Brown. But this won't happen. That is why the most likely outcome of the 2005 election is, as in 1974, a hung parliament.