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14 June 2001 Edition

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Blair's back

BY FERN LANE

There was no Michael Portillo Moment as the Labour Party was duly returned to power in the British general election one week ago with the same huge majority, give or take the odd seat, as in 1997. An Anne Widdecombe - or indeed Shaun Woodward - Moment would have been nice, but it was not to be.

There were, however, one or two memorable incidents, most obviously That Punch, Peter Mandelson's extraordinary hissy-fit victory speech as he retained his Hartlepool seat, and the disinterment of Margaret Thatcher as she slurred her way around town centres frightening children and those who remember the 1980s alike. The puncturing of William Hague's senseless Candide-like optimism was also worth savouring, as it finally dawned on him that the result was as much a reflection of him personally as the Conservatives generally. Even if he lives to be 90, he will never get past the public's perception of him as that revolting 16-year-old Tory-boy who read Hansard for fun and ``thrilled'' Thatcher.

Many in the Tory party chose to blame the electorate rather than themselves for their humiliation; Portillo, now leader-in-waiting and a supposedly reformed extreme right-winger, offered the observation that the electorate simply had not understood or had not listened sufficiently attentively to the arguments his party was making on Europe and on the issue of asylum seekers. Voters, whether British or Irish, are always likely to punish those who treat them and their ability to judge the political issues rationally with such naked contempt.

But perhaps the most important story of the election, was the least exciting; the realisation that Tony Blair commands a massive majority on the basis of only one in four of the British electorate's votes. Jack Straw - who as Home Secretary outdid even the hated Michael Howard in the reactionary savagery of his policies - suggested that this apathy is merely the politics of contentment but such a theory does not really wash. Many former Labour supporters, in the absence of any means of expressing their profound disappointment with the government, particularly on the issue of public services, chose to register their protest by refusing to vote at all. When they were offered a credible opportunity to kick Labour's behind, as in Wyre Forest, they did so with relish, overturning a safe Labour seat in favour of a retired hospital consultant standing as an independent on the single issue of the closure of the local hospital's accident and emergency department.

As he toured the country during the campaign, Tony Blair was said to have been taken aback at just how angry people were about public services and how much they felt let down by Labour's insistence on adhering to the Conservatives' spending plans for the first two years of their last term of government. If he has learned anything from the election, it should be that he cannot rely on fear and loathing of the Tories forever.
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