Labour MPs are living in fear of losing their seats at the next election

The trust factor in the present government is as potentially lethal to Blair as the sleaze tags to the Major government
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The Independent Online

In the end, the demise of this government, like that of John Major's government will come down to "one damned thing after another" - although probably not for some time yet and certainly not at the next general election. But the seeds of a government's fall are sown many years before it is actually ousted at the polls.

The downfall of the Tories probably began a decade before they left office when the poll tax was going through its policy gestation process, in the run- up to the 1987 election. For the first time, the huge parliamentary majority began to shrink. At first, it was imperceptible, with just 20 or so Tory MPs losing their seats. But a clear third- term win for Margaret Thatcher created the basis for the later claims from our opponents of arrogance in office.

We did not see the warning signs, even from our own side, when Sir Patrick Cormack and Sir George Young sought a mandate in their election addresses to oppose the tax. Then came the growing parliamentary rebellion. Of course, masking all this was a relatively benign economy. The Lawson boom was cranking up and the 1988 budget provided the red meat of raw Conservative tax cuts. The Neil Kinnock "loadsamoney" charge was fairly made, but did not stick at the time. A weak Opposition enabled the third-term Tories to make policy mistakes with impunity.

I cannot help noticing a similar feeling today among some Labour MPs who, although they think their Government is probably going to be re-elected next May, suspect that their own time as backbench MPs is drawing to a close in just 21 weeks' time. With such a large government majority, there have been few opportunities for an MP in a marginal seat to say "stop" to the policies that they believe will cause them defeat locally. The truth is that, although Mr Blair and his Government may be set fair for re-election, up to 50 or so of his backbenchers may be facing their last Christmas in Parliament, and are now on electoral death row. The irony is that there is more fear among Labour MPs about their personal future than the Tories have yet appreciated.

Talking to one Labour backbencher this week about the Blunkett saga and trying to reassure him that the Home Secretary could probably survive the current tornado, I was surprised to find that he would be more relieved if there was a quick, clean kill by either the media or the Budd inquiry. For him, the marginal sensitivities of this kind of political sideshow are taking on a much greater significance among ordinary disillusioned Labour voters than I had imagined. He also feared that David Davis, the shadow home affairs spokesman, would be able to milk the affair especially if the Budd report was either inconclusive or dismissed as a whitewash. And then he cracked: "It's just one damned thing after another".

Mr Davis has been tiptoeing around the Blunkett affair with remarkable skill and deftness. Of course, he would like another scalp to add to that of Beverley Hughes whom he claimed back in March. To this end, he gently turned up the gas over the weekend. But he also quite relishes the prospect of facing a minister who has been diminished and wounded - albeit not fatally - throughout the run-up to the general election. It was this state of affairs that finally caught up with Stephen Byers two years ago. Many were critical at the time of the Tories for failing to get Mr Byers' severed head. But it actually served the Tories better that, all the while he remained in office, public trust in the whole government - and in Mr Blair - became a defining issue for the remainder of the second term.

By comparison with the Tory years of decay during the 1990s, this is, of course, still a relatively fresh government. When Tony Blair took over as Labour leader in 1994, the Tories had been in office for more than 15 years and had already won four general elections. This is still only Mr Blair's second term. Yet if all that has happened to Labour in terms of self inflicted crises surrounding ministerial resignations - Ron Davies, Geoffrey Robinson, Peter Mandelson, Stephen Byers and Beverley Hughes - had occurred during the first two Thatcher terms, there may have been very different outcomes to even the 1987 result and certainly to the 1992 general election.

Of course, no parallel with a previous administration is exact. The economy continues to steam ahead under Gordon Brown's stewardship. By comparison, the Lawson boom under the Tories turned sharply to bust during the third term - before we had even got to the ERM debacle in September 1992. The chances of that happening with Mr Brown are reduced by the independence of the Bank of England.

But a new generation of voters brought up on the assumption of continuous economic growth no longer regards the performance of the national economy as the sole basis for electing a government. As Frank Field noted in a newspaper article yesterday: "Voters now take Labour's successes such as the state of the economy for granted. Their agenda has moved on".

Mr Field suggests if only 5 per cent of Labour voters at the 1997 and 2001 elections desert (with a quarter of these desertions going to the Liberal Democrats and the rest simply abstain) the Government's majority falls to a still healthy 104 - a loss, though, of about 35 seats. But if the desertion were to be 10 per cent, the overall majority is 26, and "at a little over 11 per cent the majority, astonishingly, vanishes".

The trust factor in the present government continues to be as potentially lethal to Mr Blair as the sleaze, arrogance and incompetence tags that attached to the Major government a decade ago. Ironically, throughout all of Mr Major's travails, his personal rating as "trustworthy" was never particularly affected by the scandals. "Honest John" was a worthy description that carried him through the darkest days of his premiership.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of current politics is how little the Tories have appreciated just how worried many Labour MPs are about their individual prospects. Tories think they cannot win. The media think Labour cannot lose. But get some Labour backbenchers in a corner and there is fear in the whites of their eyes.

At the Labour conference, I was bantering with Ian Cawsey, (majority 3,961) my Labour successor for the Brigg area of my old seat. We were discussing the likely date of the election. He was putting the case for a delay beyond May. A few weeks later, he was publicly berating the Government over the decision to send the Black Watch to Camp Dogwood.

This was the first time since his election in 1997 that he had broken ranks with the Government. This told me that some of his own party workers - and too many of his voters - must have lost patience with Mr Blair and were perhaps taking it out on the loyalist MP. And it also told me, more effectively than any opinion poll on Mr Blunkett's affair, about what Mr Cawsey may secretly think of his own re-election chances. It may not be the last straw, but it still all adds up to one more damned thing after another.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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