The Week in Politics: Blair is losing the air war but winning the ground war

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The Independent Online

"I won't vote for Tony Blair," the man told the Labour MP standing on his doorstep. "You know that Blair's going to stand down?" the MP said rather sheepishly. "What, before the election?" asked the voter. "Well, not exactly," the MP admitted.

"I won't vote for Tony Blair," the man told the Labour MP standing on his doorstep. "You know that Blair's going to stand down?" the MP said rather sheepishly. "What, before the election?" asked the voter. "Well, not exactly," the MP admitted.

This conversation, relayed to me by a loyalist but worried Labour MP for a marginal seat, will probably take place on hundreds of doorsteps between now and 5 May. Ministers confirm they have detected a "Blair problem" among voters who would otherwise back Labour. "People want Labour but they want a fresh start," one said.

Labour aides admit the party's private polling is "mixed". Voters would prefer Gordon Brown to Mr Blair. But, when pushed to make a choice between Mr Blair and Michael Howard, they plump for Mr Blair.

The Tories are aware of the "Blair problem". Their planned slogan, "Vote Blair, Get Brown" would help Labour more than Michael Howard and has been ditched. Instead, the Tories pump out leaflets showing a grinning Mr Blair with the words "Five more years?" A broadcast shown to Tory activists at their Brighton conference last weekend featured one politician - Mr Blair. "Five more years? Don't let him get away with it again," it said.

Labour's strategy is designed to address the "Blair problem". In what has been called his "masochism strategy", the Prime Minister is being verbally beaten up in front of the television cameras by angry voters. He is very good at being beaten up. He keeps his cool, and comes over as reasonable. It would not surprise me if he wins over some of his audience.

Masochism was urged on him by two people - his pollster Philip Gould and Douglas Alexander, the Foreign Office minister. He was Labour's campaign co-ordinator until the job was given to Alan Milburn last September, when Mr Blair judged that Mr Alexander was preparing rather more for the election of Mr Brown as his successor than for the general election.

Mr Alexander and Mr Gould warned the Prime Minister that he had become "disconnected" from the people during a second term dominated by Iraq and foreign affairs. To combat that and the public's loss of trust in him, he would have to climb down off his pedestal and "get in the ring" with voters, who should be allowed to land punches on him.

It is a high-risk approach. Some Labour folk wonder whether the presidential-style campaign only draws attention to the "Blair problem". His aides insist the bubble had to be burst, and that we will see a "team approach" from now on.

There is another strand to Labour's strategy. Mr Blair is trying to bypass an almost universally hostile national press by reaching voters through local media. That is why Labour officials refused to tell journalists like me when and where Mr Blair and Mr Brown were launching their poster on Thursday. Fortunately, they got their come-uppance when ITV's Nick Robinson challenged Mr Blair over Labour's claim that the Tories would cut public spending by £35bn.

Labour's attack was over the top. In his speech in Swansea yesterday, Mr Blair brought it back on to planet earth. Despite its false start, Labour is happy enough for the Tories' spending plans to be in the spotlight. "In the 1980s, the question was: 'Will Labour raise taxes?' We want to make 'Tory cuts' the central issue in 2005," one Labour insider said. After eight years in power, Labour has become the establishment and the media has tired of it. And the media has a strong interest in a close race, not least for commercial reasons.

Mr Milburn, the potential fall guy, must reflect ruefully that is is a strange kind of "faltering" campaign that is on course to deliver a majority of 120. That is what this week's NOP poll for The Independent points to, even though Labour's lead dropped from 12 to five points. The momentum is with the Tories and momentum is important.

I have been checking out the local newspaper coverage in the areas Mr Blair has visited this year. It is almost universally positive, a sharp contrast with the national press.

"You have never had it so good," said the Watford Observer, whose readers sent in questions which Mr Blair "exclusively" replied to. "PM woos floating voters," the Evening Mail said after he visited Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. Reactions from those he met were generally warm.

The local coverage is not patsy or deferential. Mr Blair is often challenged about local issues, which is what I used to do to visiting national politicians during my seven years on local newspapers. But the questions are more likely to be about health and education than Mr Brown's still unresolved role in the election campaign.

A crucial question is whether Mr Blair is an asset or a liability. His allies, of course, insist he is still overwhelmingly an asset. I suspect he is both. The voters will provide the definitive answer on 5 May.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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