New Labour has become a one-man show, but will the audience vote to see it again?

Blair has always positioned himself above and beyond his party, but this time is stretching the Labour bonds further still
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I may be the only person left in the country who is still interested in the forthcoming election - on the grounds that I think that the outcome is still in doubt. That is because I have a simple way of looking at opinion polls, through blue-tinted spectacles, as it were. At this stage before the last three elections, the polls over-estimated the share of the vote Labour went on to win by an average of 6.9 percentage points. That is a huge margin, and if we apply it to the opinion polls now, it means that instead of Tony Blair heading for a repeat of his 160-seat majority, the election is poised on a knife edge between a hung parliament and a comfortable, but much reduced, majority.

I may be the only person left in the country who is still interested in the forthcoming election - on the grounds that I think that the outcome is still in doubt. That is because I have a simple way of looking at opinion polls, through blue-tinted spectacles, as it were. At this stage before the last three elections, the polls over-estimated the share of the vote Labour went on to win by an average of 6.9 percentage points. That is a huge margin, and if we apply it to the opinion polls now, it means that instead of Tony Blair heading for a repeat of his 160-seat majority, the election is poised on a knife edge between a hung parliament and a comfortable, but much reduced, majority.

Looked at in this way, projections of the likely result of the election are highly sensitive to different poll findings. If we take the average figures for last month, for example, Labour had a lead of 6 points. If we assume that this is off target to the same extent as the polls were, on average, at this stage before the past three elections, 1992, 1997 and 2001, we are heading for a hung parliament. If, on the other hand, we take yesterday's Independent NOP poll, which gave Labour a 12-point lead, it would translate into a Blair majority of 100.

The question, therefore, is whether Labour's apparent gain from the sudden rise in the tempo of politics of the past two weeks is real and sustained. But it does rather look like round one to Blair. The disillusioned commenting classes were of one voice in their condemnation of the crass, tacky and simultaneously bland and negative nature of Labour's early campaign. Bringing back Alastair Campbell, the sexologist of prospectuses, was obviously a disaster. Reminding the voters of the day Britain was chucked out of the ERM was a low trick, even if it wasn't him. The six pledges were ghastly, meaningless guff. Trying to outbid the Conservatives on immigration was a counter-productive dutch auction. Blair's speech in Gateshead was a toe-curling embarrassment, in which he resembled a cheating husband lecturing his marriage guidance counsellor while his humiliated wife listened. His hyperactive insistence on getting his face on telly every day was bound to put people off. The net result? Labour lead slumps to 12 points.

As I say, round one to Blair and the unfairly sneered-at Alan Milburn. But lips, cups, slips and all that. A swing of a mere 3 percentage points back to the Conservatives and we are at the negotiating table discussing with Charles Kennedy which parts of the Roy Jenkins plan for electoral reform are acceptable to - er - Gordon Brown. Because if Blair's majority goes down the pan, his right to lead the Labour Party goes with it.

Hence another paradox of this campaign, and another reason why I find it so fascinating. Opportunistic Brownites such as Roy Hattersley (who was once not just a Blairite but the young leader's patron) have helpfully suggested that it would promote the Chancellor's ambitions if Labour's majority were at least halved. You do not have to be over-respectful of Brown's genius as a strategist of the long haul to recognise that it is in his interest for Labour to win the largest majority possible - given that it is what he hopes to be defending in 2009.

This campaign, which will be dominated by the cult of Blair as never before, which will be fought by him as his last general election for a uniquely personal mandate, is therefore also the starting point for whatever comes after Blair. Yet the Prime Minister makes no concession to the idea of collective responsibility.

Blair has always positioned himself as above and beyond his party, but this time he is stretching the Labour bonds further still. This is not merely a matter of putting himself about, although he is doing that, in ways that mock his tormentors. The very same people who said he should have been on the first plane back out of Sharm el-Sheikh to put himself at the head of the national spasm of righteousness over the tsunami are now, without missing a beat, complaining that he is putting himself at the head of everyone else's business.

Why, such was his lust for the greasepaint and the lights that he was even first to the televised microphone to speak for the nation on Charles's engagement to Camilla. Even if what he said was notably short and devoid of gush. Then he was off on a helicopter tour of marginal seats, culminating in a short speech, a question-and-answer session and a long speech on consecutive days of the party's spring conference in Gateshead. Tuesday was boating with school pupils; yesterday was another televised day in his life on Channel 5, followed by questions from members of the public.

This is not simply showing off, however. It is showing off with a purpose. He wants to put himself at the front of the election campaign because he is the only person who can be trusted to stick to the "unremittingly New Labour" line. That was why, at the start of this month, he stole the headlines from Alan Johnson's announcement of incapacity benefit reform.

Johnson may be a popular minister who is good on television, but it was more important for Blair to get the line right than to build up a rival to Brown for the succession. So he made a speech in Manchester the day before Johnson's Commons statement. "Those who play by the rules get the help, those who don't play by the rules should start playing by the rules," said Blair. When Johnson told MPs the new rules would not come in until 2008, and would not affect existing claimants, David Willetts, his clever Tory shadow, was almost the only person who noticed that Blair had got away with it again.

Last week, it was the same routine with Charles Clarke and his announcement of new rules on asylum and immigration. The substance was sensible and mostly liberal; the spin put on it by Blair on television the night before was: "The numbers are coming down."

The singularity of Tony Blair is that he is more right-wing (in terms of conventional labels) than anyone else in his Government. This is true not only of politicians who might be looking to the Labour selectorate that will choose Blair's successor. It is true, for example, of the reviled Alastair Campbell, whose views on education are well known. And it turns out Peter Hyman, Blair's other loyal speechwriterwho went off to work in an Islington comprehensive, thinks his former boss should put up taxes on the better-off.

The stakes in this election are high. It seems that both the outcome and the meaning of the vote are in doubt. If Blair just scrapes home with a tiny majority, that will be the end of New Labour as we know it, which is why the prospect is so enticing to Hattersleyites of varying stripes. But however disillusioned they are with Blair, yesterday's opinion poll suggests that there is a different electorate in places such as Gateshead that may not have had such illusions of Blair in the first place and for whom he still deserves one last chance.

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

The writer is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'

Comments