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The mantra is: security, security, security


ALONE in the White House, itís easy to imagine George W Bush and Tony Blair sending out their aides, closing the door and exploding with laughter. "Can you believe it?" the president would say. "After all that, I got away with it! I won!"

But how? "Listen, Tony, you can do this, too. Tell them weíre at war, get Osama bin Laden to send in a video, stir up a little patriotism, then - as the French say - voila! Donít let them make Iraq a weakness for you, thatís my advice. Turn it into your strength."

Whether this conversation took place or not, it certainly represents the thinking inside 10 Downing Street. When the Queenís Speech is delivered next Tuesday, Her Majesty will be the first to proclaim the new, one-word war cry of the Labour Party: security.

The State Opening of Parliament will, for once, be more interesting than the men-in-tights and Black Rods. The lawmaking agenda which the Queen lays out will set the background noise for the weeks leading up to the general election. It is, in effect, the opening shot of the 2005 campaign.

"We want security discussed every day before the election," disclosed one party official. By deciding which bills to throw at the MPs, the government will be setting a major theme of the campaign.

But would it be wise to attempt to repeat the success of the Republican Party? The tactics which swept President Bush to power, all MPs agree, will not work here. Britain doesnít have politicised, evangelical churches. Hardened by 35 years of the IRA threat, the British public does not even fear terrorism as much as America does.

And as for the gay-marriage issue which tore America apart (what Republican strategists call "moral security"), Britain couldnít care less. The UK Civil Unions Bill went through the Commons last Tuesday, without a murmur, almost unnoticed by the outside world.

But "security" means different things to different countries: in America, gay marriage was - in its own way - a security issue. Voters specifically and repeatedly said they feared the family was "under attack" by gay marriage: they saw a threat to their way of life, like terrorism.

So if security is more than Iraq, Mr Blair can ask what makes the ordinary British voter feel "under attack". Months of party research have produced three answers: crime, asylum and terrorism. And the greatest of these is crime. South of the Border, itís a real problem. A bleak report from the Home Office last week showed that crime in England and Wales is now the second-highest in the whole of Europe. Literally half of all prisoners are reconvicted within two years of parole.

It gets worse. The rate of robberies in London is running at twice that of New York - a city which has almost half as many police. Some 60 per cent of prisoners took hard drugs before conviction. Police-recorded crime has risen steadily since 2000.

As always, itís the lower-income families who bear the brunt of government failures: such voters are traditionally uninterested in the "causes of crime" or touchy-feely theories about social exclusion. They want the criminals cleared off their streets and sent to prison. These are Britainís equivalent of the American evangelical voters. They are increasingly alarmed about asylum and many feel "under attack" from immigrants - often because an insensitive UK policy forces them to claim benefits, and bans them from work. When the Home Office yesterday laid out plans to send more asylum seekers to Scotland, and reduce the number going to England, this is exactly the sentiment they were trying to address.

Such people are angry, just as the Bush Republican voter was angry. Crime and asylum have conspired to make such Britons feel their "way of life" is under attack - just as the Bush family-values voters felt their way of life was threatened.

The problem for Mr Blair is that such people have a longstanding habit of voting Tory. They sent Margaret Thatcher to 10 Downing Street three times - wary of grand plans to make Britain better, and opting for a woman who spoke to them in the same straightforward way that President Bush now speaks to America. So, politically, Labour is on the back foot on crime. And on Iraq. And on asylum. The "security" strategy is intended to grasp all three nettles with one hand, and come back with all guns blazing into a general-election campaign. This has been done before. About ten years ago, Labour had a dismal tax-and-spend reputation on the economy. This has been reversed, and Gordon Brown is the undisputed king of fiscal prudence. Having stolen so many clothes from the Tories, Mr Blair is now making a grab for the last piece of underwear which the Conservatives have left. Heís decided that security will be the number-one election issue, and canít allow the Tories to look better.

SO, WHEN the Queen delivers her speech, there will be six law-and-order bills - many of them designed to set off constitutional fireworks between the houses of Parliament - creating opportunities for making Labour seem tough on crime. The identification-card bill, for example, is certain to get blocked in the House of Lords - just as the foxhunting bill was being used in a ping-pong between the Commons last night. Ideally, this will happen just before the election: the more headlines the better.

The star of this show will be the bombastic David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, who only last weekend was trying to persuade us that al-Qaeda was "at our doorstep". This didnít quite work - he was savaged in tabloids for a "mani-fear-sto".

But you donít have to invent the fear of crime in England, be it petty theft or straight intimidation by the gangs of youths at war with their own neighbourhoods. What you do have to invent is the idea that Labour is the party you vote for to get rid of the louts.

This is the final part of the "security" strategy. While Westminster remains fairly turgid, the politics in Britain is in a state of flux - and the general election may be far more interesting than we currently expect. If abstaining voters come back to the polls, they can turn received political wisdom on its head - as President Bush found out to his delight three weeks ago. Britain has a vast army of such voters: in 2001, abstainers were the largest political bloc for the first time. The landslide victory Mr Blair won in the 2001 election was actually accomplished with fewer votes than the defeated and embattled John Major picked up in 1997.

Britainís pent-up anti-war vote is certain to move support from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. But even this is a wild card - because almost all the Lib Dem target seats are held by the Tories. The Conservatives could really suffer from a coalition of Old Labour and the Lib Dems.

The most intriguing wild card is the demise of the UK Independence Party, which scored 27 per cent of the vote at the recent European Parliament elections. With UKIP now in disarray, at war with its greatest asset - Robert Kilroy-Silk - this vote is very much up for grabs. It should normally go to the Conservatives, but their opinion-poll rating remains every bit as dire as under the dying days of Iain Duncan Smithís regime. With decaying local infrastructure, the Tories seem structurally incapable of picking up disaffected Labour votes.

So, starting with the Queenís Speech, a new New Labour Party will seek to Hoover up these people with its three-pronged "security" message aimed at the traditional Tories.

Itís an audacious approach: Mr Blair will effectively be saying: "I got you into this mess, let me get you out of it." The Conservatives may wake up in time, and start to reclaim their territory. UKIP may revive, and hold its voters. The Lib Dems may unsettle them all.

With five months to go until the likely general-election date (5 May), thereís still all to play for. The British election is starting to look as if it might not be so boring after all.