For all the yapping and barking, the Tories know Labour cannot lose

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The Independent Online

Sometimes the silences in politics are as telling as the noise. If you listen for the sound of dogs not barking, the most curious silence comes from the kennel of electoral reform.

Sometimes the silences in politics are as telling as the noise. If you listen for the sound of dogs not barking, the most curious silence comes from the kennel of electoral reform.

For several weeks now, Westminster has been howling with noisy speculation about the Prime Minister's future. As with dogs, if one starts, it sets off all the rest. Nowhere has the barking been louder than in Conservative Central Office. I am told that Tory strategists have been wargaming a Gordon Brown prime ministership, trying to second guess what dramatic strokes he might have in mind for his first weeks, like independence for the Bank of England in 1997.

As John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, so loyally pointed out last weekend, "people inevitably do reposition themselves" if they think Tony Blair might go. Michael Howard repositioned himself in The Independent on Thursday, criticising Blair because "he seems to take the view that any advice he offers on US policy must be made in private and any disagreement kept secret". It worked a treat, as cabinet ministers, who are desperate for Blair to put some distance between himself and Bush, trooped into the studios across the road to denounce Howard's "opportunism".

All this Pavlovian behaviour is based, however, on conjecture piled on hypothesis upon misconception. It is obvious that Labour will do very badly in the local and European elections on 10 June, possibly coming third behind the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in both sets of votes.

Yet Blair is not going to give up his job voluntarily this side of the general election. John Prescott, in his delphic interview with The Times, said that he had had "privileged" discussions with the Prime Minister about his future. "I shall always remember this period of my political life when I listen to these speculations, when I have another perspective on it," he said. But those around the Prime Minister who have at least as good a claim to know his mind as his deputy emphatically reject the idea that he might have lost the political will to live. They put a run of poor performances at Questions in the Commons, until last week's "purple powder" duffing-up of Howard, down to the absence of Alastair Campbell, rather than the lack of Blair's own stomach for the fight.

Nor can he be removed from office if he does not want to go. The only way under the Labour Party's rules to begin the process of getting rid of a leader in government is for a resolution requesting a leadership election to be carried by party conference. If a handful of constituency parties submit motions along these lines to this year's conference in Brighton, they will find themselves in a humiliatingly small minority.

Conference delegates, whatever their doubts about the Prime Minister, will be absolutely united in one respect: they detest the media. That was why Blair won an unstaged standing ovation simply for coming to the rostrum last year.

Only if Labour faces electoral defeat with the same degree of certainty as the Conservatives in 1990 will Blair really be in danger. This is where speculation meets reality, and reality wins.

Few people have realised quite how biased in Labour's favour the electoral system has become. Some of Labour's advantage is being given up by cutting the number of MPs in Scotland. Even so, Labour can win a UK general election if its share of the vote is two percentage points lower than the Tories'. Michael Howard, on the other hand, needs to be 10 points ahead of Labour in order to win a majority in the House of Commons. (See the excellent website run by Martin Baxter, www.financialcalculus.co.uk/election.)

This extraordinary degree of unfairness should have the Tory grass roots up in arms. Conservative Action for Electoral Reform (CAER) should be active. Outriders for the Tory leadership should be sounding out experts in electoral systems and working out what kind of deals they could make with Charles Kennedy. Instead: nothing. CAER is moribund. No dogs barking.

The silence on the left of politics is just as striking, although more understandable.

There was a time when you could not move in polite circles without hearing well-informed people - after discussing house prices and why, sadly, state schools were not quite right for their children - expounding on the need for proportional representation. If only we could change the voting system, lions would lie down with lambs, politicians would be constructive and helpful towards each other and the great sundering of the Labour and Liberal traditions would be healed.

It was all nonsense, of course; a hangover from the SDP breakaway from Labour that split the non-Conservative vote, allowing Margaret Thatcher large majorities in the Commons when the Tories won 44 and 43 per cent of the vote in 1983 and 1987. A decade later, just before Tony Blair gained a large majority on 44 per cent of the vote, Labour was committed to a referendum on changing the voting system.

Many Labour MPs became agitated earlier this year about their party breaking its manifesto promise on higher tuition fees. Yet the ditching of this earlier manifesto promise, a debt of honour to John Smith, was achieved without fuss. How many people even remember that the late Roy Jenkins was appointed by Blair to devise a new electoral system for Britain, which he did?

What of Robin Cook, Labour's most prominent and persuasive advocate of electoral reform? How many times has he mentioned it in his Independent column since leaving government? Once. Or Peter Mandelson, once an intelligent promoter of the most sensible compromise between the present system and strict proportionality,the Alternative Vote? All quiet.

Even more striking has been the silence of the Liberal Democrats. Charles Kennedy knows few voters care about Droop quotients and d'Hondt quotas. Yet it is refreshing, and surprising, that he has not sought to make more of the widespread anti-war sentiment that Blair is an elective dictator.

But it is the Tory silence that speaks volumes. Part of the reason for the Conservatives' lack of interest in electoral reform is their, er, conservatism. But most of the explanation is their belief that they have no chance of depriving Blair of his majority in one fell swoop. Electoral reform could be a Tory talking point during the next parliament, if Howard succeeds in cutting Labour's majority by more than half. Look out then for a seismic change in attitudes and much talk of Tory/Lib Dem co-operation in a hung parliament. The point about a hung parliament, as long as the pro-Labour bias persists, is that, whichever party has the most seats, the Conservatives will have won a larger share of the votes than any of their rivals.

Meanwhile, the importance of the deafening silence at the centre of British politics is that the Tories really do not think Blair will lose.

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