The mutterers will beat the Tories

LABOUR is increasingly confident of winning a third term, and its momentum is being helped by the re-emergence of that potent political force – the Tory mutterers.

LABOUR is increasingly confident of winning a third term, and its momentum is being helped by the re-emergence of that potent political force – the Tory mutterers.

Tony Blair has been buoyed by seeing off criticism of his handling of the build-up to the Iraq war, with Michael Howard's chronically poor performance in the Commons last week allowing Labour MPs to go on holiday in jolly mood.

"We have come through an immensely difficult time," Mr Blair told Labour's National Policy Forum at the University of Warwick, which is writing the election manifesto.

Even the loss of Leicester South and the near disaster in Birmingham Hodge Hill in this month's by-elections have been dismissed because it was the Liberal Democrats and not the Conservatives who took advantage of what Labour backbenchers believe is the party's "temporary" unpopularity because of the Iraq war.

By contrast, Tory MPs have been remarkably silent since the Commons broke up, stunned by Howard's increasing tendency to change his mind on crucial issues and by opinion polls showing that with perhaps less than 10 months before the date of the next election, there is no sign of the anticipated breakthrough.

It is even being mooted that the election could be as early as November 4, clearing the decks before the UK's chairmanship of the G8 group of leading nations and then the presidency of the European Union.

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Winning a third term could be the prelude to Labour staying in power "for decades," Home Office minister Hazel Blears crowed this week.

She told Labour's Progress magazine. "If we can achieve this then we can break the cycle of every past Labour government: in power for a few years then in opposition for many more.

"As in other countries, for example Sweden, it is possible that Labour can govern for decades not merely years.

"Our project needs a sustained period of Labour in power to move our society in a socialist direction" and "fundamentally transform the underlying basis of British society."

The administration led by Tony Blair since 1997 has already rewritten the record books for Labour longevity – beating Clement Attlee's post-war government last August. The Tories, under Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, served four consecutive terms from 1979 to 1997.

While Labour has every reason to be confident, it would be foolhardy of party strategists to assume a third landslide. The Tories might still be struggling, but they will gain seats from Labour next time and the Liberal Democrats could still benefit from anti-Iraq sentiment among core Labour voters to pull off a surprise or two.

Here in the East of England, Labour could lose around 10 of its 20 seats. Braintree, Welwyn-Hatfield, Peterborough, Hemel Hempstead and Great Yarmouth would fall to a Tory surge, while Harwich, Harlow and Bedford are in Michael Howard's sights. The Liberal Democrats seem certain to take Watford, probably win Cambridge, and possibly gain St Albans.

On our borders, a number of "Essex" London seats – including Ilford North, Hornchurch, and Enfield North – look decidedly dodgy for Labour if the Tories turn up the heat, as do Northampton South, Wellingborough, Kettering, and Milton Keynes North-East. Mind you, the Tories expected to win all seven at the last election and fell flat on their faces.

But even if the Tories struggle to 230 seats in the election – that's a gain of 67 – the Liberal Democrats take 60, and the Nationalists and Irish parties hang on to 27, Tony Blair would still have a majority of more than 40.

The Conservatives had hoped the election of Michael Howard as leader would have given it fresh momentum to mount a serious challenge to Labour at the next election.

But he has managed to upset both the left – epitomised by former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine – and the head-banging right, with Lord Tebbitt casting doubt at the direction the party is taking.

These internal tensions ought to have been buried alive when Howard assumed the leadership, but in reality they were just below the surface and are threatening to blow up just in time for the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth in the autumn.

Last year's conference was one of the biggest public relations disasters in the party's history, dominated by unprecedented briefings against then leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Party managers must try in the next few weeks to put a lid on any dissent. Only united parties have any chance of winning an election

Shadow environment secretary Tim Yeo, MP for Suffolk South, dismissed the murmurings about Mr Howard as idle chatter. "The party is in vastly better shape than before Michael took over. I remember what last summer was like. It was a nightmare of dissent."

He conceded the Conservatives were not favourites to win the next election but did have a good chance. "Last summer we were not even in the race."

Many Conservatives fondly recall that biggest of all post-war political upsets when in 1970 Edward Heath lead the Tories from nowhere to evict Harold Wilson from Downing Street. They think history can repeat itself.

But party divisions in those days were kept under wraps. The Conservatives would do well to remember the old wartime adage: "Careless talk costs lives."

A FELIXSTOWE constituent of Suffolk Coastal Tory MP John Gummer, needing urgent dental treatment, was told by NHS Direct that her nearest dentists were in . . . Frinton-on-Sea.

"Obviously, NHS Direct took a ruler and found that Frinton-on-Sea was ten miles from Felixstowe," said Mr Gummer. "Well, there is a ferry from Felixstowe to Harwich three or four times a day, but I don't know how frequent the bus connections are from the harbour to Frinton.

"Alternatively, I suppose she could swim the ten miles, but it doesn't seem very practical."

Having checked that the two dental practices – around 90 miles return by road from Felixstowe – did take NHS patients, his constituent was told that, emergency notwithstanding, there was a four week waiting list to be seen. "The response to her request is another example of the impersonal, cash-starved health service which this Government keeps telling us is getting better all the time!" mused Mr Gummer.

THANKS to Braintree's Labour MP Alan Hurst, we now know officially by how much council tax has risen in the past 10 years. In a written Commons answer, he was told by Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford that in 1993-94, average Band D tax was £568 with the average council tax standing at £456. By tax year 2003-04, the equivalent figures had nearly doubled to £1,102 and £908 respectively.

OPPOSITION councillors don't get a look in on official council tax funded internet sites so Suffolk Tories have launched their own – www.suffolkconservatives.com – to tell voters about their policies.

EAST of England Tory Euro MP Geoffrey Van Orden has been elected vice chairman of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, which is now bulging with 16 former presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers among its 78 members.

At its inaugural meeting, he demanded the European Commission drop its obsession with political integration and concentrate on practical tasks where it could add value.

"The Darfur crisis in the Sudan demands urgent humanitarian response from the Commission and  effective political action by the British and other governments in close co-operation with Sudan's neighbours, the US and other key countries," said Mr Van Orden.

ANOTHER Tory Euro MP for the East of England, Chris Beazley, wants Britain's youngsters to take advantage of educational opportunities in the newly expanded EU. "Our country's education system is attracting great interest from our European neighbours – but French, German, Swedish, Czech and Maltese schools and universities may have as much to offer our own students." Mr Beazley, on the pro-European left of the party, added: "Learn a language, go abroad – you might like it."

THE average price of a property in the East of England in January-June 2003 was £166,106 – 6.26 times the average annual earnings in the region of £26,545, a written parliamentary answer has revealed. The highest ratio of property prices to earnings was London – 7.7% – and the lowest was the North East which was 4.08%.

THE Commons committee of the regions has urged ministers to do more to help historic buildings play a part in regenerating towns and cities. Ipswich Labour MP Chris Mole, who chaired the committee's inquiry, said: "Historic buildings should be seen as an opportunity to boost the local economy and communities, not a burden to areas in need of regeneration."

IF you're in London this summer holiday and have an interest in politics, why not pop into Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster and visit the Hansard Society's interactive "House to Home" exhibition.

Designed to attract people of all ages who feel disconnected with the political process, you can walk through a giant pink tent, vote on smoking in public places, watch the best footage from the Commons from the past 15 years, and send a question to the Prime Minister.

The exhibition is open until August 20, including Saturdays, from 9.30am-5.30pm.

A WEEK IN POLITICS RETURNS IN SEPTEMBER

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