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At election poker Lib Dems can make a killing by playing their cards right

Simon Jenkins

NEXT MONTH’S ELECTION is pointless. Five years is the legal span of a parliament unless a government is under threat. Tony Blair’s is not. Yet somehow the democratic juices cannot stand five years. Politicians and electors alike all crave the polls. In which case four-year parliaments should become the law, as in most democracies. Never was the argument stronger than today. In truth not one but two national elections will take place on May 5. One is boring, the other intriguing. One is a combat between two macho-obsessed party leaders as to who should run the country, with no great disagreement as to how. The second election reflects deeper forces within British politics. It will take place between Labour-Tory on the one hand and the rejectionist “parties” on the other, mostly Liberal Democrats and their extremist tendency, the non-voting apathy party. This latter election matters only in Labour-held marginal seats rendered vulnerable by the swing against Labour. But it could just affect the overall outcome.

The first election seems at present safe for Mr Blair. He is a man of phenomenal energy. He has won the same love-’em-or-hate-’em rapport with the public as did Margaret Thatcher. He is still the most professional of politicians. Yet he looks jaded. His niceness seems tired. Sincerity chokes at the mention of his name. He has achieved the near-impossible in making even gloomy Gordon Brown a more popular figure. After eight years Mr Blair is a walking advertisement for fixed terms of office.

His challenger, Michael Howard, has become a mature leader. To be a little-known quantity is no bad thing in politics, though it helps if what is known is benign. This week’s book by Michael Crick, In Search of Michael Howard, will not help his reputation for dark arts and media-induced panic, again on display in the recent dismemberment of Howard Flight. Yet Mr Howard has given his party what it lacked since Margaret Thatcher’s departure, the exhilaration of being led from the front. Opportunist policies on Iraq, asylum or public spending do not matter. The Tory party needs a helmsman before it needs a course. Mr Howard is a strong helmsman.

There is no great divide between the two leaders. Older voters must be incredulous that an election campaign is launched with Labour selling Britain’s car industry to the Chinese, forcing the NHS to seek help from private hospitals and tipping profits in private property speculation. In none of this can the Tories find fault. Nor have they quarrelled with Labour’s zest for military adventurism. The Thatcherite dispension holds both Mr Blair and Mr Howard in awe. Both are antipluralist, authoritarian conservatives. Both see political parties not as coalitions of interest but as election machines run on the juice of patronage.

Recent polls have agreed that, given the unfairness of the electoral geography, only an electoral tsunami could replace Mr Blair with Mr Howard. Yet the pundits are already clustering together for safety, a sure sign of a tempest ahead. My esteemed colleague, Peter Riddell, predicted a 50-70 Labour majority. I think this will crumble. But it all depends. British national elections are plagued by pretence. Electors are induced by the campaign to imagine they are voting presidentially, when in practice they are voting for a local MP, mindless of wider implication. They are voting “nationally” for what is a local result, when their true intention is to do the opposite. This requires them to attend to my other election. Dominant is the fact of Mr Blair’s unpopularity and the inclination of former supporters to defect. Since they are unlikely to vote Tory (except over immigration) they can only leave the two-party system altogether. They must vote Liberal Democrat or join Britain’s most popular party, the stay-at-homes. The latter is soaring in support across Europe. The new politics ignores conventional parties and elections. It leaps into life only “just in time” to champion local issues and sectional interests, and only for a while. Few people are said to be moved by pennies off income tax. Instead they wax furious over travellers in the next-door field, small business regulation or thugs in the street.

MORI’s poll for yesterday’s Financial Times indicates a five-point Conservative lead among those “certain to vote”. The Tories’ new campaign chief, Lynton Crosby, must somehow make that putative lead effective where it matters, in some 100 Labour-held marginals. In the overwhelming majority of these, his party is the chief challenger. Since he has so far failed to raise the Tory poll share, stuck at 33-35 per cent, he has a massive interest in shifting votes from Labour into the centrist “dustbins”. Mr Crosby must become Mr Apathy. He must do nothing to erode a lethargic distaste for Mr Blair among half-hearted electors. Certainly they must not be galvanised into reverting to Labour by some right-wing rant from Mr Howard.

But Mr Crosby needs more than this. In some 90 Labour-Conservative marginals he needs Liberal Democrats to vote tactically for the Tory. (In only seven Labour marginals in 2001 was the Liberal Democrat in second place.) Lib-Dems will do this only if they see it as in their party’s interest. Mr Crosby’s task is to persuade them that it is. His argument must be not that such tactical voting will send Mr Howard with a majority to Downing Street. That seems most unlikely. Rather it ensures a hung parliament. And in a hung parliament Charles Kennedy gets to choose who goes to Downing Street, and on what terms. This outcome can be achieved, according to MORI’s Sir Bob Worcester, if just half the Liberal Democrats in the top Labour marginals vote Tory.

Under Mr Kennedy the Liberal Democrats have hesitantly carved themselves a distinctive platform. They refused to bid to become the party of the Right or party of the Left during Mr Blair’s two goverments. This was despite wide gaps opening at both ends of the political spectrum. Yet on Iraq, ID cards, detention without trial, drugs law reform and local taxation Liberal Democrats have been able to claim the liberalism once owned by Labour and the libertarianism once owned by (some) Conservatives. The party has even gone “postmodern” in telling its candidates to campaign on local single issues: save the hospital, stop the road, no to turbines.

The Liberal Democrats in coalition with stay-at-homes should win a “popular” majority on May 5. This would humiliate both Labour and Conservatives and validate a crude sort of democratic rejectionism. But to convert that into constitutional reform needs a hung parliament. This requires the Liberal Democrats to grasp the nettle of tactical voting on May 5. They must command their supporters in Labour marginals to vote cunning, vote Tory and thus vote Liberal Democrat by proxy. Otherwise Mr Blair wins.

This is the other election on which the outcome of the first could turn. As in American presidential campaigns, local people in “swing seats” must be made to feel special. Spotlights must be turned on them. They should be alerted to the role their constituency might play in the wider national drama. While the Tories must lower the temperature and “generate apathy”, the Liberal Democrats must get sophisticated. They must tactically vote their man into power.

For those who feel that Mr Blair has had his day and will not vote Tory, the only route lies through the marginal seats. It lies not with Mr Howard, who can and probably should do precious little. The decision lies with Mr Kennedy. He has a rare opportunity for a centre party of forcing a wedge between the two big ones. Only thus might he claim some part of the old Liberal agenda. The question is does he have the guts, or are Liberal Democrats not really serious about power?