Tories only fooling themselves

THE buoyant optimism of Conservative MPs never ceases to amaze me. Facing overwhelming odds, they still believe that an election victory is within their grasp.

THE buoyant optimism of Conservative MPs never ceases to amaze me. Facing overwhelming odds, they still believe that an election victory is within their grasp.

Take the hand written messages on two of the Christmas cards I received. From a member of the Shadow Cabinet came the note, "victory in 2005." On the other, the printed text was altered to "an election winning New Year."

The only persons they are kidding are themselves. To win the election, the Tories have to gain in excess of 160 seats. Being neck-and-neck in the opinion polls won't do.

To achieve an overall majority of one, the party has to be 9% ahead of Labour in the popular vote. Currently, they are between 2% and 8% behind Tony Blair, depending on which poll you read.

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The Tory plight is a direct result of the last redrawing of Parliamentary boundaries by the independent Boundary Commission, which inadvertently stacked the odds in favour of Labour. The current review is likely to redress the balance – again, not a deliberate act by the impartial commissioners – but the results will not be implemented until July 1 2006, after the last possible date for next election.

Some Tories are pinning their hopes on a hung Parliament, and believe that can be achieved by gaining 60 seats and hoping the Lib Dems oust a number of Labour MPs.

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But unless the Tories can come up with a raft of polices which appeal to the electorate, it looks as it Michael Howard will be leading his troops into the Valley of Death with as much success as John Major and William Hague before him.

This week, Mr Howard surprised the political world by publishing the first section of the Tory manifesto, calling for a cut in taxes, and promising to stand up for the "forgotten majority" – those saving for their first home, seeking an adequate pension, or struggling in retirement.

He chose Wellingborough for the launch, one of a clutch of ultra marginal seats in Northamptonshire lost to Labour in 1997 and which actually swung further to the left in 2001.

"We cannot carry on down the path of ever rising taxes. Government is too big – it is spending too much, wasting too much and taxing too much," he declared.

He was appealing directly to those Tories who have deserted the party in the past decade and who must now start believing again that only the Conservatives can promote individual responsibility and initiative, private enterprise, low taxation, patriotism, and law and order.

But in a radio interview the following day, the Prime Minister insisted the election would be about "whether – on the basis of the economic stability that's been provided, the huge investment in public services and in the mechanisms of law and order – we can then continue with the process of change and reform so that we have a country in which there is opportunity not just for a few but for all."

This brings into focus the major hurdle Mr Howard has to overcome – deep scepticism in the electorate at the Tory promise to cut direct taxes while at the same time insisting they can maintain or increase spending on the health service.

And then there's the Liberal Democrats, whose president Simon Hughes insists: "The continuing advance by the Lib Dems and the continuing failure of the Conservatives means that the coming election will be far from a straight Labour/Conservative choice. There will be at least a real three-way contest across all of Britain."

With 646 seats at stake, here's my early prediction: Labour 370 – a loss of 42 since 2001 – and the others 276, of which 18 represent Northern Ireland. This gives Tony Blair an overall majority of 94, down from the 2001 figure of 165.

Cannily observers will note that I'm not indicating the final split between the Tories, Lib Dems, the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru.

TORY Vice-Chairman Roger Gale has provided the perfect example of just how out of touch the party is with the British people.

As millions gathered to mourn the dead of the Indian Ocean, Mr Gale insulted them and those whom they were honouring by condemning the three-minute silence to mark the tsunami disaster as "the worst kind of gesture politics."

The North Thanet MP – who has a family of four constituents missing off the coast of Sumatra – said people did not need a "state-imposed" silence to underline their feelings. "This is the wrong initiative at the wrong time."

LIKE a spoilt child, the Prime Minister timed his monthly media conference to co-incide with a major speech from arch rival Gordon Brown.

In Edinburgh yesterday, the Chancellor unveiled a multi-billion-pound aid plan for the world's poorest countries but the launch of his "Marshall Plan for the developing world" but it had to play second fiddle to Tony Blair's promise to give hundreds of millions of pounds to Indian Ocean tsunami victims.

Of course, the Prime Minister – who refused to cut short his Egyptian holiday and is now frantically playing the "I'm in charge" card – denies any mischief on his part. "It's not bizarre at all – there's an awful lot going on at the moment."

But Westminster insiders believe it's another example of the corrosive feud between the two top men in government and that Mr Blair set out to steal some thunder from Mr Brown, who has already taken a lead in the drive to help victims of the tsunami by thrashing out a deal on international debt relief for affected nations.

The suspicions were fuelled when the Chancellor told a radio interviewer: "As you know, my speech in Edinburgh was planned a month ago.'

Gordon Brown's former spin chief Charlie Whelan said ministers' diaries would have been worked out weeks ago and the timing was "astonishing,"

"I expect that Gordon Brown's office and Gordon Brown will be quite shocked that they decided to hold the press conference at exactly the same time as a speech that was planned months ago.

"Perhaps it is because Tony Blair was on holiday at the time of this terrible tragedy and disaster and inexplicably decided to stay on holiday. I think perhaps realising his major error of judgment he has now decided he needs to get in on the act, be seen to be doing things and panicked slightly."

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