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Sunday 10 April 2005

Child bride falls from favour with disillusioned groom

Britain is heartily sick of Tony Blair, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

FIRST, the parochial: among the MPs standing down from the House of Commons are John Hume, Seamus Mallon and the Ulster Unionist Martin Smyth, none of whom will be missed at Westminster. Hume and Million attended rarely and Smyth's dullness was awe-inspiring.

Also off is Kevin McNamara, the woolly-headed, woolly-minded member for Hull North who acted as MP for the green fringe of the Irish in Britain. And it's goodbye too to the intellectually challenged Andrew Hunter, who bewildered his Basingstoke constituents by switching his allegiance from the Conservatives to the DUP.

Otherwise, it's potentially the most exciting British general election since 1992, yet public apathy, as well as cynicism, is at unprecedented levels. Mind you, it hasn't been helped by all the distractions in the week that parliament was dissolved: between the Pope, Prince Rainier and the royal wedding, politics is getting little attention.

It'll be different next week, for nothing can be taken for granted. The two main parties are jittery, the polls show the Conservatives catching up with Labour, cuddly Charles Kennedy and his Liberal Democrats are greatly liked but taken seriously by few, the "don't knows" amount to about a quarter of the electorate, and even the most seasoned observers are not prepared to put their shirts on any particular outcome.

What adds an extra frisson is that many Labourites want to see their majority plunge while many Conservatives want a small labour victory.

At the heart of the contradictions is that, although the country has not warmed to the Conservatives' Michael Howard, it is heartily sick of Tony Blair, who for years was New Labour's greatest asset. Indeed, more and more Blair resembles the child bride who once captured a grumpy old man's heart but whose previously winning ways are beginning to set his teeth on edge - his disillusion being compounded by the knowledge that she smarms up to the neighbourhood bigshot and is also an inveterate fibber. Kennedy, Howard and Blair

"It's when he gets all sincere," said a disillusioned Labour party member on Radio 4 last week. "You know that face." And the others members of her focus group - all long time Labour activists - began to giggle.

At prime minister's ques­tions in the House of Commons last week, Michael Howard demanded to know how many Labour MPs had Blair's photograph on their constituency literature; only a few sheepish hands were raised. When your own party sees you as a liability, your days are numbered.

The Labour Party is now dominated by fans of Gordon Brown, who never went to charm school but is widely respected not just because he is seen as a successful chancel­lor, but because compared to Phoney Tony he seems like a man of flinty integrity.

Although the party is as hungry for power as ever, it knows that if it is returned with another huge majority (157 at present), Blair will be almost impossible to dislodge. So for Brownites, the desired electoral outcome is to win by about 40-60 seats, which would be seen as a personal defeat for Blair and would enable Brown to launch a successful leadership bid, while keeping him comfortably in power for another parliamentary term.

THINKING Conservatives, who remember the hell John Major went through from 1992-97 with a small majority, would like labour to win by about 20. They know that there are black holes in the treasury's sums, that to fulfil its election pledges a Labour government will have to raise taxes, that it has run the public services inefficiently and wasted billions, and that Gordon Brown's socialism, control-freakery and sheer Scottishness could soon alienate the average English voter.

What's more, it's clear at present there simply isn't enough talent and experience among Conservative MPs to run a successful government, but four years as a confident opposition could change everything.

The entertainment value of the campaign has been raised by the Conservatives' decision to hire Lynton Crosby, who masterminded the return of the decidedly uncharismatic John Howard to the Australian prime ministership. He has masterminded a series of policy ambushes that have had Labour reeling. Its overall theme - 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?' - addresses such populist issues as immigration, law-and-order and red tape.

Still, the candidates are mostly dull and homogenous. Tarn Dalyell, the retiring bloody-minded Labour MP who has been an unmitigated nuisance to successive gov­ernments, is saddened that so few members have known anything of the real world. Parties used to be full of MPs with military backgrounds; Conservative governments had capable people who had run vast estates or successful businesses; and Labour had toughies who had made their mark in trades unions. Now, apart from lawyers, polytech­nic lecturers and those who've dabbled in media or pub lie relations, the preferred career route is from university to po­litical research.

It augurs ill for competent government. Whoever wins.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards