Blair scents third victory

TONY Blair's beaming face as he listened to his Chancellor deliver the Budget was a clear signal that he believes he has now firmly squashed a Conservative revival under Michael Howard.

TONY Blair's beaming face as he listened to his Chancellor deliver the Budget was a clear signal that he believes he has now firmly squashed a Conservative revival under Michael Howard.

Although the Tories branded Gordon Brown's spending plans a "credit card budget," the "slash and spend" proposals told us all that the election campaign is already under way.

Labour's strategy is to show voters that on public services, it is the only party prepared to invest and protect schools and hospitals. The Prime Minister will hammer home a message that the Tories will cut spending and force people to either buy vouchers or go private if they want health care and decent schools, while the Liberal Democrats will tax us all to the point of starvation.

Gordon Brown's "spend today, pay after the next election" Budget may well prop up Labour's poll ratings, but it did little to impress independent commentators who believe the Chancellor is plunging the nation into massive debts.

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Tony Blair's waking hours will now be devoted to deciding when to hold the next election. It has been widely assumed it would be on May 5 next year, but that means the final days of the campaign would be overshadowed by celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. A more probable date is June 9, virtually four years after the last poll.

Six months ago, with the Prime Minister in deep trouble during the post-Iraq conflict inquest and facing rebellions from his own MPs on variable university tuition fees and foundation hospitals, there was talk that the election would be put off until October 2005.

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That seems unlikely – and it is even conceivable that the Prime Minister will seek dissolution of Parliament this autumn with an election on October 29. Constitutional purists might frown on a Government with a majority of 165 going to the country earlier than necessary – but as Labour has had no hesitation in trampling over the constitution since 1997, it will hardly worry about the reaction of a few academics and Buckingham Palace courtiers.

An early election has another appeal – it will allow a proper build-up to a referendum campaign on the European single currency.

The next batch of opinion polls will tell us if the electorate believes Gordon Brown has delivered an election winning Budget, which makes today's speech by Michael Howard in Cancun, Mexico, the most crucial of his four month tenure of the Tory Party.

He will be addressing a meeting of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation executives amid pre-Budget signs that leading Fleet Street newspapers are wavering over their support for Labour and could back the Conservatives at the next election.

Murdoch – owner of The Sun, The Times, News of the World and The Sunday Times – was a key cheerleader for Margaret Thatcher and her anti-trades union restrictive practices campaign, but ditched the Tories in 1997 to jump on Tony Blair's New Labour bandwagon.

Only The Sunday Times stuck with the Conservatives, but even that support could hardly be described as more than luke warm.

Mr Howard will be the first UK leader to talk to News International since Tony Blair in 1995. Although no politician would be foolish enough to believe the Murdoch media could deliver election success, they recognise his newspapers exert huge influence.

Murdoch's fiesty Euroscepticism, which embraces keeping the pound and opposing the European constitution, marry with the views of most UK voters. And although these issues will be on the backburner at the next election, Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley believes the Tories' policies on taxation "resonate well with current editorial thinking inside the Murdoch empire."

However, if Murdoch believes the Tories face another mauling, he'll stick with Labour as long as Tony Blair remains its leader.

THE Tories received a massive jolt last Thursday when they fared badly in a batch of local authority by-elections, with the Liberal Democrats gaining the Braintree district council ward of Hedingham and Maplestead.

On a swing of 9.9%, the Lib Dems won by 39 votes, with Labour a poor third more than 500 votes behind.

Hedingham and Maplestead is in the rock solid Conservative parliamentary division of Saffron Walden, but the Lib Dems have been making considerable inroads there in recent months, including snatching control of Uttlesford district council, whose area forms the major part of Sir Alan Haselhurst's seat.

The result echoes the Yoxford by-election to Suffolk Coastal district council in February, where the Lib Dems came from nowhere to pull off a massive electoral surprise.

Matthew Taylor, the Lib Dems' parliamentary party chairman, said the Hedingham and Maplestead result showed the Tories had stalled under their new leader. "In real elections with real votes, Michael Howard is failing to make progress.

"On recent local election results, he has done worse than Iain Duncan Smith. If these results are repeated in local elections in June, the Conservatives would make net losses for the first time in eight years."

On the same day, Labour held their Cornwall county council seat of Redruth North with a swing of 5.5% from the Tories, retained Carnforth on Lancaster city council with a swing from the Tories of 3%, and held Sysonby on Melton borough council in Leicestershire, with a swing of 2.5%.

Only Tunbridge Wells gave the Tories any comfort – they overturned a Labour majority of three to win by 27 votes, a less than impressive swing of 1.3%.

Although I still expect the Tories to make a number of gains at the next General Election campaign in the East of England, heady Central Office talk of the party winning five European Parliament seats across the region in June's Euro poll seems at least one too many.

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