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Analysis: Can Blair make it three in a row?

By Robin Oakley
CNN European Political Editor

Which party is best equipped to take Britain forward in 2005?
Liberal Democrat
Tony Blair
Michael Howard
Charles Kennedy
Great Britain

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Tony Blair took Labour back to power after 18 years with a landslide victory in 1997. He did it again in 2001. But can he achieve his ambition of becoming the first leader in his party's history to win it three full terms in a row?

Opposition leaders Michael Howard, for the Conservatives, and Charles Kennedy, for the Liberal Democrats, are hoping that they can frustrate him.

They believe that the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction which Blair used as the reason for going to war in Iraq, and the subsequent loss of trust in the prime minister demonstrated in opinion polls, has made Blair vulnerable.

Analysts like Peter Kellner, chairman of research company YouGov, confirm the danger to Blair.

"Because people don't trust now what he said then about Iraq they are increasingly unwilling to trust him on what he says about the economy or the health service or schools or public transport -- all the domestic issues that elections are normally about," he said.

Then there is the boredom factor. Prime ministers in Britain don't have to quit after two terms. But they do get progressively weaker.

Philip Stephens, Financial Times columnist and author of a biography of Tony Blair, says: " Any prime minister who has been in power for eight years has lost the ability to say: 'Look, I just need a bit more time.'

"Tony Blair is now judged on results . They have not all been bad, but they have not all been good. In domestic policy the 'Give me a little bit more time' argument doesn't quite work so well."

Labour has been made uneasy too by the obvious tension between Blair, who has said this will be his last election, and his would-be successor Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Hurdles facing opposition

The opposition parties though still have a mountain to climb.

In the House of Commons elected four years ago, Tony Blair's Labour party secured a total of 412 seats. The Conservatives won 166, the Liberal Democrats 52 and 29 were won by other minor parties.

Blair's majority was therefore a huge 166 seats, much the same as he had had in 1997.

In the election of 2001, Blair's Labour party won a 41 per cent share of the vote. The Conservatives had 32 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 18 per cent.

But the position is worse than it looks for the Conservatives. Britain does not have a proportional representation election system but a 'first past the post' constituency election system which has to be revised periodically to allow for population shift.

There was for some time a built-in bias favoring the Conservatives, but in recent years the pendulum has swung the other way.

At the last election it took on average 92,554 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP, 50,347 to elect a Conservative MP and just 26,031 votes to elect a Labour MP.

It will not be enough for the Conservatives to achieve level pegging.

Thanks to the current bias in the system, if both major parties take around 35/36 per cent of the national vote, Labour will still be in government with a majority of around 100.

To win power for themselves, the Tories have to be 10 points ahead of Labour --and no opinion poll has recorded that sort of margin for at least the past decade.

Michael Howard, the fourth Conservative leader to face up to Blair since the 1997 election, has proved an effective opponent for Blair, a fellow lawyer, in their weekly clashes in the House of Commons. He has restored his party's self-belief and injected a new professionalism.

But he suffers from the handicap that he was a member of the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major during their years of unpopularity. Labour are insisting that it would be a step backwards for Britain if he were to walk into Number 10 as the next prime minister.

In what is likely to be a highly-personalized campaign, Conservatives are countering that the prime minister has been exposed as "all talk and no action."

They say that electors cannot trust a man who made the case for the Iraq war on the faulty grounds he did and they insist that the government's increased spending on health and education has been used wastefully and has not brought the promised results.

'Guerilla attacks'

Although there is not much evidence that it has lifted their voting support, the Conservatives have dominated the media in recent weeks with a series of guerilla attacks on the government over immigration and asylum and the handing of gypsy "travelers."

They have used personal case histories of delayed operations or denied facilities for children with special needs to highlight imperfections in public services and they have forced the government to counter their promises of increased cash help for pensioners.

But Conservative momentum was lost when Howard sacked a party deputy chairman and banned him from standing again as a Conservative candidate when he claimed that the party's proposal for £35 billion in spending cuts was "just a start."

This played into the hands of Labour campaigners who insist that the Tories have a hidden agenda of spending cuts which would weaken public services.

Liberal Democrats, who start this election with more MPs than they have had since 1929 and greater polling support than for many years, are hoping this time to make it a real three-way contest.

They are challenging Labour in its northern heartlands and targeting more Conservative seats in the south and west of the country.

They expect to win over many traditional Labour supporters disillusioned by the rightward drift of their government's social policies and by the government's commitment to the war in Iraq.

In what is expected to be another a low turnout election -- turnout dropped to a record low of only 59 per cent in 2001 -- all parties will be seeking to run campaigns designed to bring out their core voters.

In particular, they are expected to concentrate efforts on older voters. Pollsters say that 73 per cent of pensioners are likely to turn out and vote while only 34 per cent of those under 35 are expected to do so.

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