The Week in Politics: The better Howard does, the more voters he scares back to Labour

Howard stood alone, like Sisyphus pushing a giant rock up the electoral mountain
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The Independent Online

Who said the political parties were all the same? The first week proper of the general election campaign brought three very contrasting manifesto launches which revealed more about three very different leaders than they intended.

Who said the political parties were all the same? The first week proper of the general election campaign brought three very contrasting manifesto launches which revealed more about three very different leaders than they intended.

On Monday, Michael Howard stood alone at the podium at Tory headquarters, like Sisyphus pushing a giant rock up the electoral mountain that his party must climb. He has energetically, almost single-handedly, dragged it back from the abyss and made the election a real contest.

His launch illustrated the professionalism he has restored to his party. It also highlighted his limitations. His slimline manifesto touched the right notes for the Tory core vote but was not a serious prospectus for government. It was a serious prospectus for getting halfway up the mountain and completing the task in four years' time under the man Mr Howard wants to succeed him, the moderniser David Cameron.

Mr Howard and Mr Cameron may yet become the Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair of the Conservative Party, with Mr Howard saving his party from oblivion but not winning over enough centre-ground voters or pushing through enough modernisation and Mr Cameron carrying out the painful but necessary changes to make the party fit for power.

There is another reason why Mr Howard is not his party's equivalent of Mr Blair. Before the 1997 election, Mr Blair exploited the unpopularity of the Major government without appearing to run the country down. It is a difficult balance to strike, but he matched every negative attack with something positive about Labour. By banging on about issues such as immigration, Gypsies, MRSA and political correctness, Mr Howard may reinforce Labour's charge that he is the Victor Meldrew of British politics.

So to Labour's launch on Wednesday, a rather surreal event at London's Mermaid Theatre at which Mr Blair and six cabinet ministers took turns to read their carefully scripted lines as if they were in a play. For a while, I thought I had been sent back in time to my shortlived career as a local newspaper drama critic who reviewed the annual production by the Stoke Poges Players.

Labour's performance was deliberately sober and serious. But it worked. So did its long manifesto, which provided a much-needed "forward agenda" to show why Labour was asking voters for a third term and outlined another round of public service reforms without alienating party traditionalists. The launch marked the burial of president Blair, who was joined on the stage by his entire Cabinet. There was a time when Blair aides explained that he had to do so much from the centre because some ministers were not up to it - a bit odd, since he appointed them. Now he needs them, especially Gordon Brown.

Labour's strength-in-depth provided a sharp contrast with Mr Howard's one-man show. But it also revealed Mr Blair's weakness after a second term in which his reputation has been tarnished by Iraq. I asked the Prime Minister what he would say to a voter who liked Labour's domestic policies but simply couldn't vote for it while he was leader because he had taken the country to war on a false prospectus.

His sombre reply was: "I don't disrespect people who disagree with me over the Iraq war. Now I think the priority is to help the country continue the progress that it's making, become a democracy as its people want. I hope people also look at our foreign policy in the round - it's not just about the Iraq, Afghanistan or Kosovo conflicts. It's also about aid to Africa, climate change, playing our full part in the challenges the world faces."

The following day, Charles Kennedy also had a message for progressive voters agonising over whether to back Labour. At his launch, he assured them that a vote for the Liberal Democrats would not be wasted, since his party needs as high a share of the total vote as possible, as well as more MPs, to strengthen the case for electoral reform. It was a tacit admission that the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to make a major breakthrough in seats.

But Mr Kennedy has a point, and I suspect the unfair first-past-the-post system will become an issue after 5 May, especially if Labour wins another thumping majority with less than 40 per cent of the total votes.

The Liberal Democrats' manifesto launch was overshadowed by a faltering performance by Mr Kennedy who, exhausted after the birth of his son, struggled to explain the bare essentials of his local income tax policy.

His shambolic press conference was rich in irony. The Liberal Democrats' programme is more coherent and properly costed than they have managed at previous elections. But its launch was an unfortunate throwback to the party's bad old days. Mr Kennedy had a crop of disastrous newspaper headlines yesterday. My hunch is that the verdict in the real world will be kinder.

A bigger problem for Mr Kennedy is that his party is often left on the sidelines of the battle between Labour and the Tories. Perhaps it lost its opportunity to live up to its "real alternative" billing when Mr Howard arrived as Tory leader.

After week one, it seems that the threat posed by Mr Howard is driving disaffected Labour supporters, however reluctantly, into backing Mr Blair. Like the voting system, the opinion polls are loaded in Labour's favour. In a see-saw effect, when the Conservatives narrow Labour's lead, it scares the Labour disaffected back into the fold. If true, only one party can come out on top when the see-saw stops on 5 May.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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