Blair: A battle to convince his own party

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With an energetic flourish Tony Blair launches an election campaign that will be very different from the previous two. The political mood is darker, more warily suspicious and therefore incomparably more febrile.

With an energetic flourish Tony Blair launches an election campaign that will be very different from the previous two. The political mood is darker, more warily suspicious and therefore incomparably more febrile.

In 1997 Blair was a youthful Leader of the Opposition facing a tired, divided and discredited Conservative government. The left anticipated a new political dawn and many on the right preferred him to the weak John Major. Four years ago, Blair led a credible administration that still commanded widespread support. Now questions whirl around his leadership to such an extent that some cabinet ministers fear he has become an electoral liability.

Can he be trusted? What is his political purpose after eight wearying years in power? Disillusioned Labour supporters pose quite a few of the questions. This is the most striking contrast with Blair's past electoral challenges. In 1997 he sought above all to convince non-Labour doubters that his party was capable of governing after 18 years of traumatic and turbulent opposition.

In 2001 Blair's message was similarly reassuring. Now it is his some of his own supporters on the centre-left who are restless. This is largely because of his support for the war against Iraq. But "Iraq" represents wider concerns about Blair's tendency to overstate a case (hyping up the significance of the pre-war intelligence) and his failure to challenge parts of his Thatcherite inheritance (his ardently pursued alliance with President George Bush).

Blair is acutely aware of his complex task. His opening statement outside Downing Street yesterday was a perfectly judged political composition. Speaking without notes he stated that "above all" his driving mission was to entrench the higher investment in public services. Specifically he highlighted the higher public spending on the NHS, the "rising investment in every school, teacher and pupil" and the relatively high levels of expenditure on the police and immigration.

As Blair suggested yesterday afternoon during his visit to the marginal seat of Weymouth, the clash of views on public spending represent a genuinely "big choice". Astutely Blair also chose the start of the campaign to highlight what he regards as the values that underpin what can seem often like a rag bag of disconnected policies. He wanted everyone to develop their full potential regardless of class, background, race or religion.

One of his senior advisers told me recently that Blair sought a "classless society" but could not use the phrase because John Major got there first. Major could not even start to realise such an objective on the basis of the paltry public spending levels under his government. Blair and Gordon Brown have started to address the severe under-investment in Britain. As Blair pointed out yesterday the government is moving towards the EU average on health spending, a significant achievement based partly on a tax increase that was popular when originally implemented. But Britain has not reached the EU average yet in spite of being the fourth richest country in the world. The insular tax and spend debate in Britain still tilts rightwards.

At least the Liberal Democrats have had the courage, as Charles Kennedy put it yesterday, to be "direct and honest" over taxation, daring to propose a new top rate of tax for high earners. The distinctive positioning of the Liberal Democrats poses another fresh challenge for Blair. During the past two elections the Liberal Democrats formed an unofficial alliance with Labour. Both parties focused their joint fire on the Conservatives and rarely bothered to attack each other. At this election the Liberal Democrats will be battling it out with Labour as well.

In a limited but noteworthy way this places Blair in a similar position as Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock who faced the prospect in the 1980s of the middle classes deserting Labour for the newly formed SDP. Ironically it was the election of Blair as leader that attracted SDP types back into the Labour Party. The war against Iraq, opposed by the Liberal Democrats, will hover over Blair's campaign. Blair will not want to mention the war, but will have no choice in the matter. Trust has become a pre-eminent issue even if it is a nebulous one. If the economy were not performing so well allegations relating to trust would make fewer waves. Harold Wilson was regarded somewhat unfairly as devious and untrustworthy, but Wilson's character was never a prominent election issue when he was Labour's leader. The consequences of Britain's economic decline in the 1960s and 1970s quite rightly took centre stage.

Now with good cause Blair will highlight the government's strong economic record. With John Prescott playing his familiar mediating role Gordon Brown has established that the economy would once more be at the centre of Labour's appeal. Fortunately for Blair his Chancellor wants Labour to win a big majority as well. But Brown is choosing his issues carefully.

In an interview for GMTV's Sunday programme at the weekend Brown told me about his precise and limited role in the campaign: "Well the economy and investment in the public services are absolutely at the centre of this election campaign. It's at the centre of our manifesto, it's at the centre of our programme for the next parliament, and it's the centre of what we will be talking about in the next few weeks. And obviously the person who's the economic spokesman for the Labour Party has got a responsibility ... to get our economic message across. I am also really enjoying the fact that at one and the same time I can visit constituencies round the country and lead as I do on the economic issues and the public spending issues that are going to be discussed during the campaign."

Brown wants Labour to win big, but on his terms, and for it to be seen as being on his terms. Do not expect Brown to make speeches highlighting the commitment to choice in the public services. Blair and Brown are sharp enough to keep tensions at bay until after the election. For now Blair will focus more on Michael Howard, who is the only other politician who could be Prime Minister on 6 May. After the election Brown becomes the most likely successor and his fraught relationship with Blair will move centre stage once more. That assumes that Blair's last election campaign as leader goes smoothly and leads to another Labour victory.

Blair is still the best campaigner in British politics, a powerful advocate and a good listener. Labour's masochism strategy in which Blair is exposed to members of the public who are in a state of fury about his leadership is counter -intuitive to the point of perversity, but he is good at it.

If this is masochism he enjoys the pain. But above all this election will test Blair's stated theory that British politics is in the end a choice between Labour and the Conservatives. His defensive leadership has been based on the premise that his supporters on the centre and centre-right could always return to the Conservatives while those on the left have nowhere else to go. Some on the left are resolved to prove him wrong. Can he persuade them to change their minds in the next 30 days? That is the pivotal question in the election campaign.