Andrew Grice: Eight years on, why does victory feel like defeat?

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The Independent Online

If you had told any senior Labour figure before the 1997 election that the party would win a third term with a majority of 60-plus, they would have regarded it as a distant dream. Yesterday, the dream became reality, but it felt more like a defeat than a historic victory.

For all the brave talk on Thursday night about an unprecedented third successive election win, the mood in the Labour camp is one of disappointment. At the outset of the campaign, Labour headquarters hoped for a majority of about 75. During the campaign, its expectations rose higher although it downplayed them in public.

Labour's initial post-mortem into why it did so badly in London and the South-east suggests its problems went wider than the "Iraq effect". Immigration, taxes, the council tax and public service delivery also played a part. So did Mr Blair. One former minister told me: "The issue on the doorsteps was Tony. But it wasn't just about Iraq. People said he was arrogant, complacent and out of touch." Several MPs recounted how voters told them: "I want to vote for you, but I can't vote for Blair."

Mr Blair has his place in the history books as an election winner. But on his 52nd birthday yesterday, many questions were in the minds of Labour MPs. Will he be remembered for wasting the huge opportunity that his three victories delivered? Will Iraq, rather than public service reforms or Europe, prove his political epitaph? Should he have apologised for the war, as some advisers urged? Should he have addressed the threat from the Liberal Democrats much earlier, as Brownites had been saying for months?

The biggest question in many Labour minds is: should Mr Blair have resigned last year, when he thought seriously about it but changed his mind? Some MPs reflected that it would have been better for the party to have done worse in last June's European and local elections, since Mr Blair might well have quit then.

In historical terms, Labour's majority is comfortable enough. But politics is often about expectations and momentum rather than numbers. Labour has become used to big majorities; it is not used to losing seats. If it had lost a further 10 or 20, Mr Blair might have resigned yesterday.

His highly unusual announcement last autumn that he will not fight the next election now looks like a handicap. The sand is running through the hourglass much more quickly than if he had won a big majority.

Initial soundings among Labour MPs across the party's spectrum suggest that he might be lucky to get two more years in Downing Street. Some believe he would be lucky to survive beyond the referendum on the European constitution pencilled in for May or June next year.

"Two years at best, probably between one year and 18 months," one MP said. And he was a loyalist.

Mr Blair has made a virtue out of not being a tribal Labour politician, and it has played well with the voters. His party tolerated it while he was a winner. It will be less tolerant now. If there is a crisis of confidence in his leadership, he will have little credit in the bank.

Although Mr Blair's tone was conciliatory yesterday, aides insisted his determination to serve a further three and a half years had not been changed "one iota" by the election result. "Don't underestimate him," one aide said. "He hasn't gone through the last gruelling five weeks just to throw in the towel."

Mr Blair has to send such a tough message. Otherwise, the haemorrhage might start now. The truth is that the political landscape has changed dramatically and he will know that. His critics may call him arrogant, but he is not stupid.

However long it lasts, his third term is going to be very different to what Mr Blair envisaged. He will have to be a more consensual figure, and he will have to work closely with Gordon Brown. With such a reduced majority, it is going to be difficult to implement what Mr Blair called a "quintessentially New Labour" agenda when he launched his party's manifesto. Not only has he got a wedge of about 30 left-wing MPs to worry about, Mr Brown's supporters on are quite capable of voting en bloc if the Chancellor wants to turn up the heat on the Prime Minister to stand down.

Despite the straitjacket of the electoral system, the voters found a way of "sending a message" to Mr Blair, as Michael Howard urged them to do. The message was not quite the one Mr Howard had in mind. People did not want a Tory government and the Tories barely improved on their 2001 share of the vote. They were saved from humiliation by ruthless targeting of the marginals, and a better showing by the Liberal Democrats in Labour-Tory battleground seats, which took votes from Labour.

Mr Howard made a dignified exit yesterday. He had a point when he reminded us, politely, that he had been dealt a bad hand by Iain Duncan Smith 18 months ago. But the Tory campaign seemed part of a "two-elections" strategy and did not really reach beyond the party's core vote.

It was an odd election in that it left all three main parties disappointed. When the dust settles, the Liberal Democrats may look back on it as a historic missed opportunity. They performed well against Labour but, as a consequence, did badly against the Tories, highlighting their classic dilemma of how to appeal to two very different audiences. "The worrying thing is that people don't want any of us," one Labour MP said.