Yes, yes, it's bad for Mr Blair. But it's Mr Howard who should worry

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The Independent Online

The national importance of Thursday's elections is easy to summarise: they do not matter a bean. Of course they matter, a little, to the residents of Trafford or Newcastle, in that their council is under new management. And they matter to Londoners, because Ken Livingstone's congestion charge and extra buses have made an observable difference to the capital. But the results of the European Parliament elections, to be declared tonight, will not affect anyone much - apart from the candidates near the cut-off points on the party lists, and their researchers, secretaries and families. Which is one reason why the Government had to work so hard to encourage people to vote in the European elections.

The national importance of Thursday's elections is easy to summarise: they do not matter a bean. Of course they matter, a little, to the residents of Trafford or Newcastle, in that their council is under new management. And they matter to Londoners, because Ken Livingstone's congestion charge and extra buses have made an observable difference to the capital. But the results of the European Parliament elections, to be declared tonight, will not affect anyone much - apart from the candidates near the cut-off points on the party lists, and their researchers, secretaries and families. Which is one reason why the Government had to work so hard to encourage people to vote in the European elections.

And the effect on the Prime Minister's position is negligible. Which must come as a disappointment to many of those who contributed to the higher turnout on Thursday. One of the stronger motivations for voting was to send a message to Tony Blair, about the Iraq war, or Europe, or that life in Britain is not perfect. The ritual is completed by Cabinet ministers appearing in the media sounding suitably "mortified" (David Blunkett) or acknowledging that they had received "a kicking" (John Prescott). And by the Prime Minister conceding that the Iraq war has cast a "shadow" over Labour's electoral fortunes. There were two other significant gestures. He did say how sorry he was to Labour councillors who lost their seats. And Margaret Beckett said the Iraq situation was "unique" - an interesting way of saying: "It won't happen again."

But that is it. It is a ritual that helps everyone feel better. Blair is not going to apologise for the Iraq war; and he is not going to stand down, chastened. Next year, people will be voting to choose between him and Michael Howard as prime minister. Voting for the Liberal Democrats, with due respect to my colleague Alan Watkins, will be largely a matter of stopping one of the larger parties winning a particular constituency, while the UK Independence Party and Respect will retreat back under the stones from where they crawled.

For all these reasons, it does not make sense to make predictions for the general election from Thursday's elections. True, Labour has done badly in the results declared so far. And, despite the johnnymandering carried out by Prescott to try to maximise the Labour vote in the European elections, the party's share of the vote in tonight's results is likely to be even worse. Prescott moved the local elections to coincide with the European ones and forced one-third of the electorate to vote by post in a desperate attempt to counter the apathy of Labour supporters.

Yet most of the local elections were not manipulated, and Labour's share of the vote, as far as the BBC can extrapolate from the patchwork of councils up for election, was only 3 percentage points lower than in May 2000. In the general election a year later, Blair won a second huge Commons majority with 42 per cent of the vote. If that figure dropped only 3 points in next year's general election, Blair would still win with a majority of 124 seats.

Shadow? Did someone say shadow? If there is a shadow over last week's elections, there is no doubt that it falls mostly across Howard, even as he displays all the outward signs of triumph. In the local elections, the Conservatives have done about as well as they did four years ago, just before William Hague became another hedgehog on the Blairite motorway.

More telling than the local election results was an opinion poll for the BBC which found that Blair's "trustworthy" rating has dropped sharply over the past year - but that 63 per cent of voters still rate him as "competent". With Margaret Thatcher back on our television screens last week, this is another reminder of the past: people may not have liked her, but they thought she was competent. Even worse for Howard, he is rated less trustworthy and competent than Blair.

Unless something dramatic happens in the next 12 months, Howard is going to lead his party to its third consecutive defeat next May or June. This is not particularly his fault. His party is trapped by forces of history that Blair is still marshalling with some skill. The centre of gravity of British politics has shifted in favour of spending on public services rather than tax cuts. Having offered uncosted tax cuts at the last election, the Tories have now moved on to the more credible ground of matching Labour spending on the NHS and schools. But that shift has also blurred the difference between the two main parties. Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, is reduced to asking people to vote for an unsayable intention to cut taxes at some distant point in the future. Whatever the flaws of Labour reforms, the Tories have not given the electorate good enough reasons to vote against them.

Meanwhile, Britain's relations with the rest of Europe continue to be a Tory minus when they should be a plus. Conservative policy on Europe is closer to the views of most of the British people - regarding both the European constitution and the euro as an unnecessary infringement of our national rights until proven otherwise. But, as Heath, Jowell and Curtice comment in their political science textbook on New Labour: "Situating oneself close to the policy preferences of the median elector is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for electoral success." Especially when the Tories are up against a Prime Minister as ruthlessly opportunist as Blair, who has neutralised the euro and the European constitution as election issues by promising referendums on both.

The question for Howard now is: by how much does he need to reduce Blair's majority next year to survive? In 1987, Neil Kinnock stayed as Labour leader, having reduced Margaret Thatcher's majority from 144 to 102. But the Conservative Party showed in the coup that installed Howard last November that it is capable of brutally dispatching leaders who are not up to the mark.

Or, at the age of 64 just after the likely date of the next election, will Howard be too old? Interestingly, he gave the "wrong" answer to the question about his future when he was interviewed for this newspaper last week. He was asked what would happen if he did not win the next election and, instead of saying that he did not contemplate defeat, he replied: "Then there are a huge range of possibilities."

Conservative MPs are once again discussing those possibilities, ranging from David Davis, who will be 56, to David Cameron, who will be 38. But simply to rehearse the list should convince any member of the Tory party that the nature of their problems is not simply, or even mostly, their choice of leader. The party has to renew itself so dramatically that it leapfrogs New Labour - the Portillistas were right about that, even if their choice of leader was flawed. It is already too late for next year, but at least the Tories have five years to get it right next time.

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