The shameless electioneering of Mr Blair, and a lack of coherent opposition

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The Independent Online

Normally, by the time the parliamentary schedule arrives at the final Queen's Speech before an expected election, all the focus, and the fire, is on the Government. Yesterday, most of the unanswered questions were swirling around the opposition. This is partly a tribute to Tony Blair's tactical skills in wrong-footing his opponents. But it was also a sign of just how far the two main opposition parties have to go to challenge the Prime Minister's electoral supremacy.

Normally, by the time the parliamentary schedule arrives at the final Queen's Speech before an expected election, all the focus, and the fire, is on the Government. Yesterday, most of the unanswered questions were swirling around the opposition. This is partly a tribute to Tony Blair's tactical skills in wrong-footing his opponents. But it was also a sign of just how far the two main opposition parties have to go to challenge the Prime Minister's electoral supremacy.

Yesterday's Queen's Speech, with its almost exclusive emphasis on law and order, was a shameless piece of electioneering. For a supposedly left-of-centre party to come up with this catalogue of illiberal, and mostly unnecessary, measures would have brought blushes even to the cheek of Harold Wilson. But it was also extremely effective in outflanking the opposition. How could the Tories oppose tougher measures to combat crime, and new laws to increase security, without abandoning their claim to be the traditional party of law and order? And how could the Liberal Democrats bang away about the loss of civil liberties without putting off those Tory voters whom it must target in the next election?

This is the challenge for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leadership, and they still have a distance to go to meet it. Michael Howard's response yesterday was particularly disappointing. Alternatively belligerent and petulant, he cast around all over the place to find a stick with which to beat the Government. One can sympathise with his problem: Tony Blair's political transvestism does make it difficult to pin him down on individual policies. But Mr Howard's plan somehow to build on the public's sense of distrust in the Prime Minister leaves him endlessly repeating the same general accusations of excessive spin and high rhetoric. What he has not been able to do is to fashion an alternative narrative that establishes a Tory policy that is distinct, convincing, and proof that they are fit to take office once again.

Instead of freezing in the headlights, the Tories could offer this decent alternative. The basic Conservative tenets of a free market, a minimal state, private participation in public services and - dare one say it - a more libertarian approach to the law could all be gathered together in a coherent and distinct philosophy for dealing with public services, tax and law reform. But the Conservative leader is still a long way from building such a coherent platform, and his slothful approach to policy development has allowed Mr Blair to steal yet more of his natural policies. Little wonder that the voters find him no more attractive a proposition than his predecessor.

Charles Kennedy was more cogent yesterday in his attack on the Government for creating a "climate of fear" in its legislative programme. And he has a fine track record in taking a principled stand on issues such as civil liberties. But ultimately, he was not much more effective in facing down the Prime Minister. It is chiefly a matter of style. There is still a certain timidity in Mr Kennedy's parliamentary speeches, a reluctance to go for the jugular. But the problem for the Liberal Democrats runs deeper than problems in House of Commons debates. It is that there is sometimes a lack of coherence in their overall political package, which is comparatively easy for their opponents to exploit.

True, the Liberal Democrats are in the awkward position of not knowing whether to concentrate on the floating Tory vote or to chip away at those Labour supporters who feel let down by Mr Blair. Either way, like the Tories, they need a narrative to take to the broader British public. Their opposition to the war and to the reduction of liberty at home is a fine start, but such principled liberalism is less evident when it comes to the economy and public services. The looming election provides the party with its greatest opportunity in four generations, while the Tories face a genuine threat to their very existence. On yesterday's evidence, both leaders still have their work cut out.

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