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 seats — 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 seats 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.
This means that Michael Howard and Gordon Brown both find themselves in the humiliating position of having their destiny decided for them by Charles Kennedy and his Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems are the only dynamic force in mainstream British politics. At present they stand a modest third in the polls, but this belies the true position. The poll-rating of about 22 per cent is an astonishing ten points higher than it was at a comparable stage before the 2001 election. The Lib Dems have a record of performing brilliantly during general election campaigns, and there is no reason to suppose 2005 will be an exception. Charles Kennedy made the right call on the Iraq war, and after this week leads the only party with a civilised position on law and order. His campaign chief, Chris Rennard, is the single British strategist with a lucid understanding of our political predicament. Kennedy himself is open to the charge that he lacks substance, but this seems to have no effect on the voters. In any case, he and his new wife Sarah have arranged, with awesome timing, to have their first child in April, practically the eve of polling day.
Thanks to an eccentricity of the electoral system, the most important winner from this surge in Lib Dem votes would be the Tories. Certainly a surge in support would cause the Lib Dems to win seats at the expense of the Tories — but not nearly as many as the Tories would win at the expense of Labour. This is the Lib Dem tragedy.
If Tony Blair wins an overall majority of 100 seats or more, he will emerge strengthened from the election, but fewer than 50 and he is gravely weakened. As things stand, the most likely outcome next May is as follows. The Tories: 185 seats, Lib Dems 70, New Labour 360. This would mean a government majority of maybe 70 seats, and clarify nothing, not for Tony Blair, not for Gordon Brown, and not for the Tories either.
Three years ago I announced in The Spectator my intention to write a pamphlet detailing the lies and deceptions put out by the Blair administration. Since then readers have occasionally written to inquire when this volume was to appear. Sorry: I got distracted by other things. Nevertheless, the theme remains a topic worthy of exploration. Apologists for the government loudly insist that a venal press is responsible for the current malaise in the political process and the contempt in which politicians are held. There is some truth in this assertion, but it fails to take into account the effect of falsehoods uttered by politicians themselves. The Spectator has kindly given me the next two months off to write a book, to be published next year by the Free Press. The subject matter has been widened to include lies told by politicians of all colours: Tory, Labour and Lib Dem. The mendacities of the last Tory government will be chronicled, as well as the lies of the present Labour administration, and deceits of the Lib Dems. The book will examine the social, cultural and political causes of the rise in political lying; and propose remedies. All contributions are welcome, and I can most readily be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.