The Week in Politics: Why PM's strategy has only fuelled speculation

When Tony Blair addresses Labour MPs on Monday as the Commons resumes after a break for the party conference season, he will be hoping that his backbenchers feel that not much has changed.

At first glance, things are pretty much as they were. Today's NOP poll for The Independent suggests Labour is on course for a third general election victory, the Liberal Democrats' conference bubble may have burst and Michael Howard's "trust me" appeal has bombed because people don't trust politicians.

But I suspect that as Labour MPs look at their leader, they will feel that a lot has changed. The most dramatic, far-reaching event of the past three weeks was the triple whammy Mr Blair launched on an unsuspecting political world after Labour's policy announcements in Brighton had been overshadowed by Iraq: his new heart treatment, his purchase of a £3.6m house and, most significantly, that he would serve a full third term if Labour wins the election.

Mr Blair's remarkable statement of intent was meant to quell speculation about his future. Yet I suspect his backbenchers will be speaking about little else as they gather in the Commons tea rooms and bars on Monday. By reminding us of the blindingly obvious - that he would cease being Prime Minister one day - Mr Blair has changed the terms of political trade until the day when he finally departs.

That is certainly not what he intended. But the feeling in Labour ranks is that everything has changed; that the post-Blair era is coming even if it takes a long time to arrive. Mr Blair has no regrets, I am told. He expected the initial flurry of speculation about the Labour succession. He hopes there will now be no media frenzy after the election about when he will stand down. He feared that his third term would be washed away in a torrent of such speculation.

I am not so sure. Mr Blair will probably keep the show on the road until the election. No one, not least Gordon Brown, the clear front-runner to succeed him, wants to be blamed for rocking the boat - and a poor election result. John Prescott has made clear he will stamp on anyone who steps out of line. But I suspect that discipline will break down after the election and that Mr Blair will find it difficult to complete his full term.

One interesting feature of the conference season was that both Mr Blair and Mr Howard adopted a less confrontational style in their speeches - an acknowledgment that politicians have been fighting amongst themselves and turning the voters off.

This was a back-handed tribute to Charles Kennedy, who does not need image-makers or focus groups to tell him to be more human and less of an actor. That comes naturally to him.

He was back on form at his party's successful Bournemouth conference, putting his illness behind him and no longer looking as though he was asking himself: "What the hell am I doing here?" The Liberal Democrats had a successful week. The two main parties - and the media - are taking them much more seriously, which is overdue. But they will have to work hard to avoid cracks appearing in their policy programme at the general election.

The Tories had a good week, too. The grown-ups are back in charge of the party and it was their best conference for several years. But I couldn't help thinking that they were whistling to keep their spirits up. True, that needed to be done. If they don't think they've got a chance, they are not going to convince the rest of us.

The biggest danger to the Tories is that people think they are a "wasted vote", as Mr Kennedy told his conference. He knows how it feels; this problem has blighted the third party for years - and may do so again next May. The Tories also need to convince people the election is a two-horse race to stop Eurosceptics backing the UK Independence Party because they think the Tories have no chance.

As The Independent's survey suggests, life will be harder for the Tories in the real world than in their Bournemouth bubble. Lord Saatchi, the party's co-chairman, lifted Tory spirits by disclosing that the party's polling showed it would gain 103 of its 130 Labour-held target seats - enough to produce a hung Parliament. Lord Saatchi was described to me this week as one of the three people who matter in the Tory party - the others being Mr Howard and Oliver Letwin. But his poll sounds a bit dodgy, as it implies that the Tories are doing badly in their safe seats - unless all the nationwide opinion polls are wrong.

I would like to see the full details of the Tory survey. An internal Tory report on the council by-elections held since June paints a rather different picture. The Tories have won 33 per cent of the votes cast, ahead of the Liberal Democrats on 28 per cent and Labour on 25 per cent. But compared with previous elections in the same seats, the Tory vote is up by only 0.85 points, with Labour down six points and the Liberal Democrats up 4.5 points. The Tories have made a net gain of 49 council seats but the Liberal Democrats have gained 48, while Labour has lost 32. The mood of the electorate is volatile. Many voters have fallen out of love with the two big parties and are looking around. That makes the election much more unpredictable than it looks.

Comments