John Curtice: The real danger lies in ignoring threat posed by the Lib Dems

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair faces a simple problem at the general election. He comes with a lot of baggage. Abroad, he has led the country into an unpopular war whose long-term success is still uncertain. At home he has raised taxes and promised voters better public services in return. And his personal popularity has waned.

Mr Blair tried to lighten his load yesterday. As in his speech to last autumn's Labour conference, he was in a contrite mood.

"I'm back," he announced, acknowledging that much of his second term has been dominated by an approach to foreign affairs about which many have had their doubts. He acknowledged too that his style of government has had the air of a "I know best" approach that has led some to accuse him of arrogance and of a too-presidential approach to decision-making.

The third term, we are promised, will be different. All six of Mr Blair's pledges concern events at home, not excursions abroad. And he now appreciates he cannot hope to deliver his pledges by barking orders from the top. Instead, we will have a Prime Minister who listens as well as leads, who knows that, "We can do it only together".

On the other hand when it comes to Mr Blair's domestic record, he is in a bullish mood. Things may not be perfect, but he believes that Britain is now the "better" place that Labour promised when first elected in 1997.

Apart from the marked exception of the immigration pledge, Mr Blair's verbless pledges are evidently as much claims about what his government has achieved as they are promises for the future. Certainly, in each case, he was as keen to tell us in his speech what has already been accomplished in the past eight years as he was to enlighten us about what may happen in the next four.

How far these pleas will actually lighten his load remains to be seen. But in any event, Mr Blair reckons he still has one vital advantage. However unpopular his government may have become, Labour still looks less heavily laden than the Conservatives under Michael Howard. This belief is central to Labour's choice of campaign slogan, "Forward not Back". The step back is a Conservative government, to the allegedly unhappy days of the 1992-97 government of which Mr Howard was a member.

Indeed Mr Blair strikingly revealed just why he thinks this argument is so powerful, because Mr Howard has not reinvented his party in the way that Mr Blair himself transformed Labour into "New Labour".

But even if Mr Blair's analysis of the Conservative predicament is correct, his strategy could yet come unstuck. Disgruntled voters may recoil from voting Conservative but still consider the classic home for the protest vote, the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Kennedy got just one mention yesterday. Whether Mr Blair will be able to continue to ignore him remains to be seen.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University