Britain has an allergy to Europe, and even Tony Blair knows he cannot cure it

The few remaining Euro-idealists sound like old boys reminiscing about a nightclub that closed 40 years ago
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair tried to gerrymander the recent elections in two ways. One worked, one did not. Postal ballots were not a success. Mr Blair overrode the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and the doubts of the House of Lords. He insisted on postal ballots in four regions rather than two, in the hope of maximising the turnout of Labour voters. He merely maximised the turnout of those who, in John Prescott's words, wanted to give the Labour government a good kicking.

Tony Blair tried to gerrymander the recent elections in two ways. One worked, one did not. Postal ballots were not a success. Mr Blair overrode the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and the doubts of the House of Lords. He insisted on postal ballots in four regions rather than two, in the hope of maximising the turnout of Labour voters. He merely maximised the turnout of those who, in John Prescott's words, wanted to give the Labour government a good kicking.

This electoral experiment was bound to be complex. There was always the danger of chaos. Yet Mr Blair entrusted it to a man who can barely speak his own language. The outcome was predictable. Under John Prescott's direction, it was the electoral process which got a good kicking.

There have been numerous allegations that the postal ballots were polluted by fraud. It is to be hoped that these are thoroughly investigated and that the defective results will be challenged in the courts. In the course of the 19th century, it was gradually recognised that a secret ballot is an essential democratic safeguard. It is equally essential that most voters should not cast their ballots until polling day; otherwise, there is little point in an election campaign.

Anyone who does not share Tony Blair's contempt for electoral integrity must hope that some of his cynical experiments will be struck down by judicial review.

The political cynicism is harder to override. Mr Blair's second manipulation was to ensure that the local elections would be held on the same day as the European elections. All common sense should revolt against that decision. Local elections ought to be about local issues; European ones, about Europe. But Mr Blair did not want an election on Europe. It would have caused him embarrassment. Equally, he was happy to give the United Kingdom Independence Party a means of increasing its vote in the local contests, at the Tories' expense. That certainly cost the Tories one seat in the London Assembly, and no doubt others as well in councils.

Tony Blair also had a longer-term goal. Tory canvassers who encountered deserters to UKIP report that most of them declared their intention of returning to the Tories for the general election. Not all will. Mr Blair has calculated that a good UKIP result now will enable that party to win more votes at the next election.

Extreme parties reserve an especial hatred for their mainstream competitors. UKIP, which nurses fantasies about one day replacing the Tories, is likely to make a strong effort in Labour/Tory marginals. Even if it only wins 3 per cent at a general election, two and a half of that will probably come from the Tories. This adds a further contour line to Michael Howard's already mountainous challenge.

So Mr Blair will not be depressed by his poor performance in the various electoral forums. He has achieved his principal objective: to make it even harder for the Tories to defeat him. Yet in terms of his supposed principles, there has been a heavy cost. There may also be a miscalculation.

The cost relates to Europe and Mr Blair's own ambitions. Tony Blair thinks of himself as a devoted European. Indeed, he had expected to be the most pro-European premier since Ted Heath. He had intended to use his hold over British public opinion to persuade the voters that their destiny lay in Europe. So what happens, seven years into a Blair government? He fights a European election in which Europe is hardly mentioned. He does not try to persuade the voters to love Europe; he simply wants them to hate Michael Howard.

There may be some level of self-deception at which Tony Blair still thinks that he could win a referendum campaign on the European constitution. If so, only he is deluded. Europe has never had less resonance with British public opinion; Euro-idealism has never seemed more out of date. A few retired diplomats and former Tory cabinet ministers still pretend to one another that there is a European cause in Britain. To everyone else, they sound like dear old boys reminiscing about a nightclub that closed 40 years ago. Jacques Delors is right. Britain is allergic to Europe, and Tony Blair has given up trying to cure the allergy because he thinks that Michael Howard will sneeze the loudest.

This is where he may be miscalculating. Even if he has now forgotten it, he did owe a lot of his electoral appeal to a reputation for honesty. He may also have come to assume that no one ever lost an election by underestimating the voters' intelligence. He could yet prove himself wrong. A lot of voters now believe that this is a man who often tells them lies. Though they may not understand all the details, the electoral trickery has reinforced the message that this man is not to be trusted, and deserves further kickings.

But not all Tony Blair's negatives are turning into Michael Howard's positives. The Tories spent too much of the election campaign on the defensive, wanting to attack UKIP yet also reluctant to give it the oxygen of publicity; unable to find one big idea to convince the voters that the party has a lot of good smaller ideas, plus election-winning momentum.

There may be a way out of this. The voters do not yet have a strong impression of Michael Howard's beliefs. Tony Blair is trying to fill the gap by assuring them that Mr Howard is a blend of Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and Jack The Ripper.

It is time for Mr Howard to rebut this by giving his own account of himself. At this year's Tory Party conference, he ought to produce a pamphlet which would in effect form a pre-manifesto. Entitled "Michael Howard's Britain", it should set out his intentions and his values in a fusion of policy proposals and personal narrative.

There is a political vacuum in this country, which would provide an opportunity for a skilful opposition. Many people think of themselves as disillusioned with politics. They insist that all that lot are as bad as each other and that there is no point in voting for any of them. Yet they really want a better alternative.

A lot of voters would be ready to sack Tony Blair, if only they could be sure of the replacement. I doubt if as many as 30 per cent of the electorate has decided (a) that it will vote at the next election and (b) for whom. There is enough volatility to give any opposition leader grounds for hope. But the volatile voters may not all move in the same direction.

Everything is to play for; last week's elections have resolved nothing. They have confirmed the electoral death of the British Euro-federalist cause, but that corpse had been mouldering for years. They have also confirmed the extent to which the voters are confused, resentful, disorientated - and open to persuasion.

Mr Blair fought a purely negative campaign: Mr Howard, an insufficiently positive one. It is now clear that Tony Blair intends to win re-election by focusing on Michael Howard's negatives. So there is only one thing for Mr Howard to do: try to make that impossible, by giving the voters his own version of who he is.

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