The punchbag strategy. Just what Mr Blair's (spin) doctor ordered

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The Independent Online

Eight years ago, the Daily Mail was a willing accessory to the election of a Labour government. Although it did not urge its readers to vote Labour, it had welcomed Tony Blair's election as Labour leader and much of its coverage of him was favourable. Last week it was recruited as the unwitting accomplice to the re-election of a Labour government. On Thursday, its front page screamed, "Blair meets real people", with pictures of the six voters who had "wrecked" the Prime Minister's "PR stunt" broadcast on Five the day before. "A stunt aimed at repairing Tony Blair's political image backfired spectacularly yesterday when it turned into a terrible TV mauling," the Mail reported, in its traditional factual and dispassionate manner.

Eight years ago, the Daily Mail was a willing accessory to the election of a Labour government. Although it did not urge its readers to vote Labour, it had welcomed Tony Blair's election as Labour leader and much of its coverage of him was favourable. Last week it was recruited as the unwitting accomplice to the re-election of a Labour government. On Thursday, its front page screamed, "Blair meets real people", with pictures of the six voters who had "wrecked" the Prime Minister's "PR stunt" broadcast on Five the day before. "A stunt aimed at repairing Tony Blair's political image backfired spectacularly yesterday when it turned into a terrible TV mauling," the Mail reported, in its traditional factual and dispassionate manner.

Blair's appearances on three separate programmes on the same channel on Wednesday were indeed a public relations stunt, but it was a more complicated one than the slick and controlled operation implied by the phrase.

"The Daily Mail has played right into our hands," declared one delighted Blair adviser. "They don't get it. We want to take risks. We want things to go wrong."

It has been difficult for the members of New Labour's inner court to re-educate themselves out of the habits of a political lifetime - remember the constant criticism of Blair in the early days as a "control freak"? But Blair has decided to take a calculated risk. His ability to handle questions from members of the public or, in the case of the Clause Four roadshow to sell the rewriting of Labour's constitution, grassroots members of his party, has always been one of his great strengths.

His performances are rarely spontaneous. All his advisers testify to the amount of work he puts into apparently natural and effortless display. He still prepares for Prime Minister's Questions for four hours, starting work at 7.30 on Wednesday mornings. The one time when, as prime minister, he really did get a "terrible TV mauling" was when he stuck to an ill-judged prepared speech to the Women's Institute in June 2000.

What went out on Five last week, therefore, was just what the (spin-) doctor ordered. Some people, including some important ones at the Daily Mail, thought he came out of his exposure to the non-deferential studio audiences badly. Others, including some who came to it with a more open mind, thought he seemed boringly unruffled. Many of his questioners undoubtedly sounded angry. After road rage, now we have politician rage. But, of all people, Blair can cope. Masochism strategy? It was more like a walk in the park. But what was incontestable was that he was engaged with the gritty problems of disillusioned former Labour voters.

The punchbag strategy is designed to deal with a problem identified by a poll carried out for The Independent on Sunday last September. We found then that 63 per cent of voters thought that he was "out of touch with ordinary people", and that 57 per cent thought he was "too inflexible". Those were scores that matched - and in the second case exceeded by a considerable margin - those recorded by Margaret Thatcher just before her downfall.

As Blair continues to endure the shouting down, hectoring, interrupting and general rudeness that members of the public say they deplore when MPs or journalists do it, his image as remote and unbending will be eroded. It didn't really work when he tried a similar approach in the run-up to the Iraq war, which, for many people, was the prime example of Blair's refusal to listen, but he calculates that the exercise at least limited the damage.

It is a risky strategy, for two reasons. One is that, while getting a good verbal kicking might offset perceptions of him as arrogant, if it goes too far he might appear weak. But arrogance, not weakness, is the pressing problem. The other is that anything can happen.

Yet it is a bit of a myth that members of the public can catch out politicians in ways that professional interviewers cannot. It is a myth born in the 1983 election campaign when Thatcher famously appeared rattled by Diana Gould, a "real person" who opened the floodgate of the end of deference by not accepting her answer on the sinking of the Belgrano.

But she was also discomfited by David Dimbleby when she talked of "drivelling and drooling" about compassion in an interview before the 1987 election. And I have never really seen Blair "caught out" by either an amateur or a professional questioner.

The point is that facing angry voters is less of a risk than retreating to the bunker and reinforcing the impression that he is cut off from the concerns of the "hard-working families" of Labour rhetoric. And it has the added advantage of playing to Michael Howard's weakness.

The Conservative leader does not attract the same anger of high expectations disappointed. He suffers from something much more electorally deadly: cold indifference. As Stuart Wheeler, the Tory donor whose withdrawal of funds struck the fatal blow against Iain Duncan Smith, observed of Howard two weeks ago, people "don't warm to him as easily as people warm to Blair, which seems to me awful because he is a nicer man". And Howard gets caught out by tricky questions surprisingly often for a clever barrister - by Jeremy Paxman in ancient times and by himself recently over whether he would have voted for military action in Iraq.

The final part of Blair's calculation is that Charles Kennedy also performs well in a real-world format. Kennedy has proved himself positively Blairite in his ability to be all things to all people. He is a softer, gentler, rounder version of the early Blair, respected and liked by a wide coalition of incompatible interests. If this election were a presidential contest between Blair and Kennedy, the incumbent might be in trouble. But it is not. Blair has a weapon against Kennedy, which he deployed in his speech in Gateshead last weekend. Addressing the wider electorate over the heads of the Labour delegates before him, he said: "If you decide you want Mr Howard, that is your choice. If you want to go off with Mr Kennedy, that's your choice too. It all ends in the same place. A Tory government not a Labour government."

This attack is likely to be effective for the simple reason that it is broadly true. Tactical anti-Blair, anti-Tory voters face the prisoners' dilemma. They can only safely vote Liberal Democrat if they are sure that enough other voters will do the same, otherwise they risk letting the Conservative win. In most seats people cannot be sure that voting Lib Dem rather than Labour will result in the election of a Lib Dem rather than Labour MP. It is more likely to result in the election of a Conservative.

So we are back to Blair versus Howard in the bearpit of live television "maulings" by "real people". It is a contest, however messy and uncontrolled, that can produce only one winner.

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