Steve Richards: If everyone casts a protest vote against Tony Blair, the Tories will win the election

Howard speaks for parts of England that are still very much alive and kicking
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The Independent Online

Even at half past seven in the morning, Charles Kennedy could hardly contain his excitement. The night before, Kennedy had addressed a triumphant rally in Cambridge. The meeting was packed. Kennedy had spoken with a sweaty passion, rediscovering the oratorical flourishes that had marked him out as a star in the 1980s.

Even at half past seven in the morning, Charles Kennedy could hardly contain his excitement. The night before, Kennedy had addressed a triumphant rally in Cambridge. The meeting was packed. Kennedy had spoken with a sweaty passion, rediscovering the oratorical flourishes that had marked him out as a star in the 1980s.

At the start of yesterday's early press conference, Kennedy declared that the gathering had reminded him of revivalist election rallies held during the heady days of the old SDP/Liberal alliance in the 1983 election.

I am sorry to spoil the fun, but we all know the outcome of that election in 1983. Margaret Thatcher won a landslide. Obviously the political situation now is not the same as it was in 1983. The Conservatives are in no position now to win an overall majority, let alone a sweeping victory.

But Kennedy's observation is also a potent reminder that when the third party performs well, it is often the Conservatives who benefit. At the very least it suggests that this is a very different election from the previous two in 1997 and 2001, and much more difficult to predict.

The most significant change is the positioning of the Liberal Democrats themselves. In 1997 and 2001, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in an unofficial alliance, not attacking each other nationally or in key seats. As a result, the Conservatives faced a joint onslaught from the centre left. Now Labour and the Liberal Democrats fight each other as they did in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Conservatives flourished.

In this changed political context, the defection of the former Labour MP Brian Sedgemore is highly significant and damaging for Labour. As I have argued in previous columns, defections tell us much about the movement of the political tide. I consider them to be a more accurate barometer than opinion polls.

In the 1970s and 1980s, all the defections were from Labour to the Conservatives and the Alliance. Although Labour was often ahead in the polls during the 1980s, the direction of the defections suggested that the party was still doomed. In the 1990s, the defections were all in the opposite direction, away from the Conservatives.

Now, in the middle of an election campaign, a former Labour minister leaves his party for the Liberal Democrats. Like nearly all defectors, Sedgemore is a maverick, but he symbolises the determination of some mainstream Labour supporters to switch at this election.

Sedgemore does not expect Labour to lose the election. Instead he wants to give Blair a "bloody nose". Judging by the e-mails I receive, this is a view of some Independent readers (although by no means all).

A typical e-mail from Labour-supporting protesters is along these lines: "I have no intention of voting Labour, and I am amazed they are going to win with a big majority on 5 May." Everyone believes they are alone in planning nobly to cast a protest vote.

Obviously the main source of the current anger is the war against Iraq. The Liberal Democrats deserve immense credit for opposing the war, while the Conservatives were foolishly gung-ho. Even so, they get away with a lack of intense scrutiny over their position in relation to the conflict.

At yesterday's news conference, Kennedy says that in advance of the conflict he wanted Hans Blix and the UN inspectors to remain in Iraq for as long as was necessary. He ignores the bleak reality that President Bush's patience had run out. If Kennedy had been Prime Minister, his choice would have been simple by that late stage: allow the US to invade Iraq alone or in alliance with the UK.

Blair did not have the option of giving the UN inspectors an indefinite amount of time, even if he had wanted to. Many would argue that Blair should not have got himself trapped into an alliance with Bush in the first place. I agree with this view, but it was only through the alliance with Bush and the threat of force that he got the UN inspectors back into Iraq in the first place.

Instead of acknowledging the multi-layered complexity of the war, political leaders pluck out of context a particular event to advance their case. Tony Blair does so by focusing on the dilemmas he faced in the final weeks leading up to the war rather than the decisions he had made a year before.

Michael Howard affects concern that the war was illegal while arguing that Blair should have invaded Iraq on the grounds of regime change, which in itself would have been unlawful. Similarly, by implying that they would have acted in a way that was not an option for Blair, the Liberal Democrats are not quite as pure as they seem.

The simplistic debates about the war against Iraq fuel the more cynical political atmosphere of this election campaign that I described in this column on Tuesday. It is in such an atmosphere that the Conservative campaign is making a few waves.

The Conservatives' pitch is surprisingly similar to their inept 2001 campaign. They are not presenting a programme or a team for government. Like William Hague last time, Howard travels the country virtually as a one- man show, warning about immigration, crime and the mendacity of Blair. The difference is that these issues resonate more than they did four years ago. Howard speaks for parts of England that are still very much alive and kicking.

As he speaks, the Liberal Democrats attack the government from the left. Unlike in the last two elections, there are two parties out to give Blair a bloody nose, and their target is the large number of disillusioned Labour supporters. This does not feel remotely like a landslide election to me.

Blair has already had the shock of his political life over Iraq. For once he underestimated the degree of opposition to a policy. Last week, in the interview with me for the Independent, he stated clearly that he would not take a victory as vindication for the war. There was not a whiff of aloof arrogance in the air, about the war or anything else for that matter.

It will be one of the more bizarre ironies of recent elections if a cautiously defensive government, with few friends in the media, is punished for its perceived arrogance and apparent ability to "spin" stories in its favour.

In the 1983 election I reported on some of the revivalist Alliance rallies as a student journalist. After one of them, I recall having a drink with Roy Jenkins, David Owen and my future girlfriend, who was also reporting the rally. I was standing next to an electric heater, and was so excited I caught fire. Did I leave the room and risk humiliation in front of such illustrious people or stay in the hope the flames would subside?

Kennedy is right. They were heady days. The Conservatives ruled for another 14 years.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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