Magazine article The Spectator

How Tony Blair Can Win the Election - and Still Lose Office

Magazine article The Spectator

How Tony Blair Can Win the Election - and Still Lose Office

Article excerpt

Easter comes unusually early this year, on 27 March, which is not quite without political significance. The Prime Minister will probably wait for a few days beyond the festival before announcing the date of the general election, most likely to be held on 5 May. To put it another way, just 16 weeks remain before the start of the election campaign.

The result is a foregone conclusion. Labour will win. The bookmakers put this outcome at 5-1 on. These apparently prohibitive odds actually represent superb value. Punters are being offered what amounts to a 20 per cent return in less than five months (the equivalent of 50 per cent annualised) at zero risk. Bet now!

But the certainty of a Labour victory does not mean that the election itself is purely academic. Tony Blair can win in May - and yet still emerge the loser. This paradox is accounted for by the fact that the real contest is not the official battle between Michael Howard and Tony Blair, but the war between Tony Blair and his deadly rival Gordon Brown.

The key facts are as follows. If Labour wins by another landslide, as the polls suggest it will, Brown's political career is almost finished. A landslide would make Tony Blair one of the most successful politicians of all time, and give him back all the massive power and confidence that he has squandered since the 2001 triumph. Above all, it would provide the Prime Minister with the mandate to move Gordon Brown from the Treasury and govern on his own terms. Tony Blair would have the luxury, enjoyed by very few leaders, of grooming his own successor.

But a sharply reduced majority would spell disaster. Tony Blair's rash decision to announce the date he intends to leave office means that at some stage in the next Parliament power will start to seep away. An emphatic victory at the polls next spring will head off that witching hour. A narrow victory - anything under 50 scats - would render Tony Blair impotent from the start. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Blairite MPs tend to be those with the slimmest majorities, while trade-unionist-minded Brown supporters will tend to hang on if Labour faces a major electoral setback in May.

A mirror image of this problem faces Michael Howard. The Tory leader has announced that anything short of victory is out of the question. In reality he must know that the only issue is the scale of his defeat. Howard's place in history depends upon whether he can lead some modest Tory recovery. A repetition of William Hague's melancholy experience of 2001, when the Conservatives remained static at the polls, would lead to a Tory crisis on a scale that would dwarf anything yet seen: defections, moral collapse, talk of a new party, etc.

This has led to a curious state of affairs. Tory leader Michael Howard and Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown are like Stalin and Churchill after 1941. They detest each other, yet are united against a common foe, and both would probably settle for a Labour majority of around 50 scats after the election. In practice, however, the matter is out of their hands. The Chancellor can take no public action against Tony Blair for fear of being accused of disloyalty. Michael Howard, meanwhile, has yet to find a way of talking to the voters. The man he hoped would do the trick for him, Maurice Saatchi, has failed, and there is little real prospect of redemption this side of May. …

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