Just four weeks ago there was a powerful view at Westminster that it would be all up for Tony Blair after next week’s elections. This opinion was most widely expressed within the Labour party itself, where the Prime Minister was candidly seen as a liability.
Labour’s campaign literature reflects this. Photographs of the Prime Minister are hard to find; it used to be impossible to escape from his grinning visage at election time. Labour’s opponents have been only too happy to remedy this oversight. Liberal Democrat pamphlets, almost without fail, give pride of place to photographs of the Prime Minister, often standing shoulder to shoulder with President Bush.
This Liberal Democrat strategy has been viewed with quiet pleasure among the growing number of Labour party factions that wish nothing but ill to Tony Blair — above all the Brownite machine. ‘We will strike after the June elections,’ one Brownite told me six weeks ago. ‘The elections will be a disaster,’ he added happily, ‘and then one name will break ranks during the weekend after 10 June and call upon Tony Blair to stand down.’
The picture looked plausible at the time: bloody defeat, followed by a massive insurgency, and a triumphant Chancellor installed in Downing Street by party conference time in October. Matters have since, however, taken a most unexpected turn. The United Kingdom Independent Party, like the US cavalry, has arrived to save the Prime Minister at his most desperate moment. Opinion polls suggest that far from emerging as the loser, Tony Blair could even be hailed as the narrow winner after next week’s Euro elections. The U-turn on a referendum, such a shambles at the time, has had a double effect. It has not merely stolen Michael Howard’s trump card, but — even more dramatic — opened up a yawning gap on the Conservative Eurosceptic flank which Joan Collins, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Nigel Farage et al.