The Week in Politics: Tories shiver as Blair eyes more of their clothes

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The Independent Online

What was the cause of the cries of jubilation in Downing Street this week? The end to the marathon saga of fox hunting? The NOP poll in The Independent showing Labour nine points ahead? The verbal assault on Gordon Brown when he invited a gaggle of pro-Europeans to the Treasury?

What was the cause of the cries of jubilation in Downing Street this week? The end to the marathon saga of fox hunting? The NOP poll in The Independent showing Labour nine points ahead? The verbal assault on Gordon Brown when he invited a gaggle of pro-Europeans to the Treasury?

No. The whoops of delight in No 10 were prompted by a newspaper interview given by the Leader of the Opposition, a revealing sign of the times. Michael Howard told The Guardian about his frustration at Tony Blair's ability to steal the Tories' clothes and to "look and sound like a Tory".

For some Labour prime ministers, that would be an insult. But Mr Blair took it as a compliment. Phrases like "game, set and match" and "mission accomplished" were bandied around as Blair's team savoured the interview.

The bad news for Mr Howard is that Mr Blair will colonise even more of the political centre ground in the next few days. The Queen's Speech on Tuesday will include 28 Bills and another eight in draft form. Several will have a "safety and security" theme, ranging from serious crime to antisocial behaviour and identity cards. These measures will be given priority in the curtailed parliamentary session that will take place before the general election expected next May.

Mr Howard's frustration will be compounded. The raft of "security" legislation will be difficult for the Tories to oppose, without looking "soft" on crime. But if they support it, they will be an echo chamber for the Government, so why should anyone vote Tory?

Labour is already facing criticism for trying to turn next May into a "security" election based on the "politics of fear", an issue I explored in this space last week. Ministers admit they are trying to neutralise Labour's potential "negative" issues: its private polls give it a big lead over the Tories on terrorism and security in general, although the two parties are broadly neck and neck on crime and disorder and the Tories ahead on asylum.

Mr Blair is anxious to learn lessons from the recent elections in the United States and Australia, where left-of-centre candidates talked a good game on "opportunity" but did not win the voters' trust on "security". Parties of the left have traditionally been more comfortable on the social agenda, with their right-wing opponents happier to occupy the law and order territory. "To win elections, you have to be able to win on both security and opportunity," one Blairite cabinet minister told me yesterday.

So ministers insist the Queen's Speech will provide only half of the picture. After addressing what they call "people's general sense of insecurity in a fast-changing world" they will move from "fear to hope" by spelling out proposals to extend opportunities and allow people to realise their aspirations. The key events here will be Gordon Brown's pre-Budget report next month and his pre-election Budget next spring.

Mr Blair may have sidelined the Chancellor from planning the election but he is relying heavily on him to deliver the goods on the "opportunity" agenda. Watch out for measures on child care, time off for working parents and other moves to help "hard-working families" and pensioners.

The Government is ruthlessly pulling all the levers at its disposal, just as Mr Howard could do once, a long time ago. For example, proposals to tackle drug-related crime were peppered around different Bills. So Mr Blair came up with a nice wheeze: why not have a separate Drugs Bill just to put the issue in neon lighting?

Since becoming Labour leader, Mr Blair has always been determined to occupy the Tories' natural territory. It is no coincidence that William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith took over their defeated party promising to fight on the centre ground but found themselves pushed out to the right - partly by Labour and partly to prop up their own position.

Mr Blair hopes that Mr Howard is now repeating the mistake, in part to see off the threat from the UK Independence Party. He is convinced that the Tory leader has missed a golden opportunity to modernise his party.

Another guiding principle for Mr Blair - a trick he learnt from Mr Brown - is to lay down "dividing lines" between the two main parties. He will be quite happy to fight on Labour's public investment versus Tory tax cuts. But the Tories need other dividing lines, notably on crime and security. The Queen's Speech is designed to make it very hard to find them.

One remaining negative for Mr Blair, of course, is Iraq. He is not going to say sorry because he's not.

But he is pondering how to adopt a more conciliatory tone which acknowledges the genuinely held views of those who opposed the war. The aim is to woo back the people, perhaps three million of them, who still share Labour's values but do not intend to vote for the party.

The Prime Minister wants a sort of truce with his Iraq critics under which both sides acknowledge their differences and move on to the "bread and butter" issues which - he hopes - are more likely to decide the election.

Interestingly, he managed to achieve a similar accord when he held talks on Thursday with Jacques Chirac, the French President, who is usually an awkward customer.

Blair allies believe that there is a wider lesson in the truce with M. Chirac. "It's a bit like a relationship; you don't agree 100 per cent on everything with your partner but you still want to stay together," said one aide.

We will have to wait until May to discover whether the voters feel the same about Mr Blair.

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