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There's only one way to rap Mr Blair on the knuckles - vote Conservative

Simon Jenkins

WAS THERE EVER such an electoral conundrum? Our old friend, conventional wisdom, holds that we should all return Tony Blair to Downing Street tomorrow, but with a smaller majority.

This is not a prediction. It is an admonition, a call to arms, a battle cry. I must have heard it a hundred times. Voters must apparently go into the polling booth, pick up the greasy pencil and not give Mr Blair a landslide. They must vote Labour adverbially, reluctantly, protestingly, gut-wrenchingly, anti-landslidingly. They must send Mr Blair a message, a bloody nose, a black eye, a rap over the knuckles. He must be supported, but not wholeheartedly. He must be backed, but not at risk of moral scruple. He must be made thoroughly ashamed of himself. This reminds me of the French film Ridicule. I recall a scene in which an exquisite, silk-costumed Louis XVI courtier holds a scented handkerchief to his nose as he urinates over a servant and then hands him a sovereign. The truth is that there is no urinal vote in British elections. There is no half-vote, if-only vote or vote marked "Ooh, you are awful! But I like you". You either vote Blair or you do not.

So what is the point of so many public figures shouting to the world from behind the curtain that they are voting Labour but don't really mean it? They hope merely that someone else will salve their consciences. Do these fastidious ones really think that on Friday Mr Blair will divide the spoils of victory into "enthusiastic" and "bloody nose"?

It is not immigrants who should be taught a lesson in the British constitution but political commentators. The Tories cannot possibly win this election. Given Labour's gerrymandering of seats, the Tories would need an about-turn of some 15-20 points to get to power. Spread betting suggests that Labour's overall majority may be reduced below 100, but will still be substantial. So how can the silk handkerchiefs hope to "send Blair a message" by reducing that majority?

The answer is blindingly obvious: they must vote Tory. There is no other plausible way of cutting Labour's parliamentary majority than by electing more Tory MPs. In the seventy most marginal Labour seats, all but ten have Tories as the challenging party. A switched vote from Labour to Liberal Democrat is only half a vote, half a message. In Tory marginals a Liberal Democrat vote risks merely substituting a Liberal Democrat for a Tory, which is no message at all. Blair-haters can of course stay at home - and hope he is suitably chastened. But the arithmetic of the polls is clear: the only way of cutting Mr Blair's majority is by increasing the number of Tories. The joy for the fastidious ones is that this can be done without any risk of putting a Tory into Downing Street. Mr Blair has too great a lead for it to be at risk from his fair- weather friends.

This has become an intriguing election. Assuming Labour wins, it will be the seventh victory in a row for Margaret Thatcher. It will deliver her a round "0 years of supremacy over British government, equalling the epoch of Attlee's welfare socialism after 1945. Labour's manifesto is a Thatcherite classic: adventurism abroad and progressive privatisation at home, moral partiality bolted on to an ever-expanding nanny State. The consensus is well illustrated in the near-identical proposals for public services from Labour and Conservatives. Both have pandered to middle-class insecurity. They have used fear, crime, discipline and control as leitmotifs and promised to curb civil liberty and make the welfare state increasingly optional. Baroness Thatcher may have disappeared to Venice for the duration, but she can look back on this campaign with pride. She destroyed the Social Democrats, she destroyed old Labour and, in stimulating the creation of new Labour, she has all but destroyed the Tories. To the opposition parties the election has been about trust, which shows that political debate can sometimes rise above "the economy, stupid". They have tried to transfer Mr Blair's loss of trust over Iraq to trust in delivering on public services. This has not entirely worked. A threat to surgery opening hours lacks the resonance of a 45-minute missile threat to Britain. But the campaign has exposed the other side of the trust coin, that of accountability. British politicians nowadays make pledges across the entire range of public service that would be inconceivable in national elections abroad - and duly invite the electorate to hold them responsible.

Thus Mr Blair, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy have found themselves wrestling with the minutiae of hospital cleanliness, street policing, school discipline and neighbourhood behaviour. All these are devolved to local government elsewhere in Europe. Fully two thirds of the Tory manifesto was about intervening in frontline public administration. These may be the concerns which the campaign has thrown at them. But that is because, by centralising control over them, successive governments have also centralised blame. I have lost count of how many candidates have told me: "It's hopeless where I am: all people want to talk about are local issues." All government is local. The public demands accountability for hip replacements, refused places in schools, wind turbines, speed cameras and the availability of ambulances. Denied responsibility for these services locally, they must take whatever chance they have of seeking redress nationally. They hijack a general election. The centre may overwhelm locality most of the time, but now locality strikes back. Apart from Iraq, '005 has been a great big glorified local election.

That is, apart from Iraq. Here democracy has been at its ruthless best. "Move on," demands Mr Blair. No, say the electorate, we have unfinished business since we last communed with you. Iraq was a conscious gamble with the law, with veracity and with public opinion. It involved an exercise by Mr Blair in self-delusion and public deception. Things were said and done that should not pass muster in a democracy, kept secret only by Britain's monarchical constitution. The Prime Minister thought he could bluff his way through, and might have done without a general election. But he asked for trust when he had undermined the basis on which it is granted. He entered the tyrant's defence, that ends justify means. When he was exposed, he refused to admit it.

Elections are accountability moments. The British Cabinet and Parliament failed to scrutinise the Iraq venture. If the new House of Commons is to be worth a brass farthing it would inquire into this. But where Parliament turns a blind eye, the hustings are merciless. Their savagery is etched daily on Mr Blair's face and in his body language, as he twists and rants and dissembles. Nor do they award any credit to Mr Howard, knowing that he too is mired by the same venture.

The press and the BBC, not least the much-reviled Today interviewers, have vindicated themselves magnificently. Each day they have blown their trumpets round the walls of Jericho and the walls of mendacity have tumbled.

That said, Mr Blair seems certain now to begin a third term of office. He is the great political manipulator of his age and will deserve congratulation for leading Labour to a sustained revival in its fortune. By following so close in Lady Thatcher's footsteps at home and abroad he has kept opponents to the right and left gasping for air. But he cannot blame her for his most grotesque act of deception. She was a good lawyer. Regime change, she always said, was " a matter for the people of Iraq". Mr Blair's war is still sending coffins back to Britain and filling television screens with slaughter and destruction. Even to attempt democracy in Iraq he had to abuse it back home.

Looking at the polls, I am inclined to agree with the scented handkerchiefs. Mr Blair's arrogance and that of his anointed successor, Gordon Brown, must be curbed by a larger opposition presence in Parliament. There is only one way of getting that.