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Election battle turns personal

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley

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Blair faces toughest battle yet in May 5 parliamentary elections. CNN's Robin Oakley reports.
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Robin Oakley
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- It is getting tough and it is getting personal. The L-word is now well and truly to the fore in this election. The Conservatives have unveiled a poster showing a shifty-looking Tony Blair and declaring: "If he's prepared to lie to take us to war he's prepared to lie to win an election."

Michael Howard would not be allowed to use the L word in the House of Commons, where MPs are all addressed as "Honorable Members" and presumed to be so. (It always makes me think of the old line "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted the spoons" and the House of Commons canteen still manages to 'lose' an inordinate amount of cutlery every year).

But they are not in the Commons now, with the Speaker to protect them. This is back of the bike sheds stuff with no quarter asked or given and Howard has decided he has nothing to lose by employing a strategy of "no more Mr. Nice Guy." As he puts it, "I am a very direct person. I say it as it is."

For the moment, a clearly nettled Blair is staying away from similar insults. But just watch Labour too now go for the man as well as the ball. We will hear plenty over the next week of Howard's past record as an environment minister who introduced the unpopular poll tax and as an employment secretary who saw unemployment soar.

The louder the insults get between the two major parties, the more the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy will be rubbing his hands, and not just to get the baby lotion off them after his new nappy-changing duties.

Having the Iraq issue raised does him good, leading the one party that opposed the war. Having the two main parties scrapping like junk yard dogs over a bone brings him an even bigger bonus as the public recoil from the spectacle of tit-for-tat name-calling politics.

Another intriguing development has been the decision of both the main parties to employ the "playing dead" strategy. We have discussed here before Howard's claim to be "2-0 down at half time," as a way of persuading Labour supporters who don't like what Blair did over Iraq to indulge their irritation and abstain or vote for the Liberal Democrats without fearing that they would be helping to usher in a Conservative government.

But now we have had the Labour Party leaking to the media an internal party study that showed a much narrower margin in the key marginal seats than the one the pollsters have been recording nationally. There the aim is to persuade those potential stay-at-homes or Lib Dem flirters that there is a risk that by indulging their protest they could finish up with a Conservative government they will dislike even more than what they would see as the small Conservative government presided over by Blair for the past eight years.

The uncertain element which remains in this election is that of turnout. And Labour sympathizers, though more numerous than the Tories, are still revealing to the pollsters a greater disinclination to make the effort to get off the couch or out of the betting shop and head for the polling booth. According to MORI, 80 per cent of Conservative supporters are claiming to be certain to vote compared to just 64 per cent of Labour sympathizers.

Two more things have changed in the Tory campaign. Following complaints that the Tory leader was flying solo too much (a tactic his front benchers are likely to emphasize afterwards if he doesn't succeed in making major inroads on the Labour majority at this election) the Conservatives are now starting to make more use of their other front benchers. And the "Are you thinking what we are thinking?" placard behind Howard" which has been criticized for its 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink' innuendo on issues like immigration, has been replaced by the more prosaic "Taking a stand on the issues that matter." Moving up a gear, or merely the grinding of gears?

The only light relief of Tuesday's campaigning was provided by Greenpeace protesters who climbed onto the roof of deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's house and erected mock solar panels in protest at what they perceive as the government's lack of action on environmental issues. They erected too a banner referring to Prescott's penchant for gas-guzzling Jaguar cars and his punching of the heckler at the last election who threw an egg in his face. The banner declared: "Oi, Two Jags. Hit targets, not voters."

It was a quintessentially British protest. The Greenpeace team politely approached and identified themselves to the armed officers protecting the Prescott residence and knocked on the door to tell Prescott's secretary what they proposed to do.

In the circumstances the officers could hardly use their weapons, and no breach of the peace was likely. But after objections from the deputy prime minister the smiling policemen were forced to change their tune and the protesters were ordered down from the roof under powers brought in to curb animal rights extremists. An extremely unamused Prescott, whose home boasts elegant turrets, also rang a TV station to complain about a reporter referring to his home as "Two Jags Towers."

There is, of course, a serious security point to consider here, the times being as they are. But isn't there still just a little room in politics for a sense of humor?

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