The Week in Politics: Mood music plays on Labour's poll fears as Tories force Blair on to the defensive

Tony Blair stayed away from the remarriage of George Bush and Europe this week. He insisted that no snub was intended, pointing out that he had a breakfast meeting with the US President, even though he barely attended the formal ceremony.

Perhaps I am confusing the Prime Minister's stance in Brussels with the Queen's approach to the royal wedding. But there is no doubt they both wanted their big events to be "low profile". The last thing that Mr Blair needed was to remind the British public of his special relationship with President Bush - and the Iraq war - on the eve of a general election. Labour's "forward not back" slogan is, I am told, a plea for people to move on from Iraq as well as a reminder of the Tories' past failings.

Mr Blair could barely wait to get away from Brussels and return to the domestic political fray. At his monthly press conference yesterday, the Prime Minister trumpeted an increase in the national minimum wage. But he found himself under pressure over his anti-terrorism laws and became irritated when questions about the legality of the Iraq war returned to haunt him.

Like the weather, the mood at Westminster has changed. As far as the political weather is concerned, it is the Tories who are making it. Initiatives on immigration and pensioners' council tax bills have thrown Labour on to the defensive.

The Tories even found a chink in Labour's normally impregnable NHS armour via the MRSA superbug. The tables have finally turned; Labour has been forced to respond to Tory policies rather than the other way round.

The public seems to be noticing. Sustained media coverage of the immigration issue has helped the Tories close the large opinion poll gap. Two surveys published in the past week showed Labour's lead falling to two and three points respectively.

First, some perspective. Even on the closest of these two polls, Labour would win a majority of 96 - a big enough cushion even if the Labour lead is overstated, as it was before the 2001 election. A third survey published yesterday gave Labour a six-point lead.

Nonetheless, mood music is important in politics, and the morale of parties matters at election time. Labour has been unsettled by the past few weeks. It has been setting the political agenda for most of the time since Mr Blair became Labour leader in 1994 and does not like to be on the back foot. It needs to regain the initiative, and will try to do so next week with announcements on schools, skills and parental leave.

Labour MPs are starting to grumble. They recognise Mr Blair's formidable campaigning skills and understand his so-called "masochism strategy" of subjecting himself to hostile questions from "real people". The aim is to show he is not arrogant, remote from their everyday concerns or more interested in his place on the world stage.

All the same, some Labour MPs question the wisdom of running what appears to be a presidential campaign. Their doubts are voiced by the former union leader Sir Bill Morris in an interview for GMTV's Sunday programme tomorrow. He warns that Labour should "field its best team" and that "one person doesn't win elections".

There will now be greater efforts to show Labour has a team leadership and is not a one-man band.

There has been some predictable sniping from supporters of Gordon Brown at Alan Milburn, his successor as Labour's campaign chief. The party's response to the Tories' £35bn of claimed savings was feeble. Brown allies blame Milburn, whose friends criticise Brown for not putting his shoulder to the wheel. "We've not been asked," say the Brownites. To which the Blairites reply: "Yes you have. We want you involved."

While Mr Brown remains semi-detached, the Labour campaign will not get into top gear. But it would be wrong to suggest it is careering off the road. Labour's biggest problem is that two out of three people think it is going to win. That allows disenchanted supporters to flirt with the Liberal Democrats or stay at home. Labour needs to scare them with the prospect of a Tory government, and closer opinion polls will help that process.

Some Labour folk are returning to the fold. The gap between people who identify themselves to pollsters as "natural Labour" and those people who will actually back the party at the election has narrowed from between 7 and 9 percentage points to between 5 and 7 points, according to Labour's private polls.

It needs to close the gap further and maximise its turnout, which will be a critical factor in the election.

Labour strategists hope the Tories get only a temporary fillip from the immigration issue. When Labour pollsters outline the two parties' approaches without mentioning the parties, people prefer Labour's policy. But when they mention the parties, people instinctively back the Tories because they are "tough" on immigration. So expect more tough language from Mr Blair.

Immigration, however, is not going to win the election and the Tories will need to score runs on other wickets. Much is resting on the final shape of the £4bn package of tax cuts they will unwrap after the 16 March Budget.

Despite Mr Howard's undoubted progress and his strong leadership, Labour is convinced he is his party's weakest link, a reminder to voters of why they turned their back on the Tories. For all people's doubts about Mr Blair, they prefer him as Prime Minister to Mr Howard.

Strangely, the leaders of the two main parties are both their strength and their weakness. It will fall to the voters to resolve this conundrum on 5 May.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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