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Day Two: Howard up, up, up?

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley
CNN's Robin Oakley
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British Prime Minister Tony Blair calls May 5 election.
Which party is best equipped to take Britain forward in 2005?
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Robin Oakley
UK election

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The final prime minister's question time of the 2001-2005 Parliament was a clear points victory for Conservative leader Michael Howard.

He conducted the Tories behind him like a choir, with choruses of "up, up, up" (that's taxes, immigration and hospital superbugs) and "down, down, down" (that was pensions, average take home pay and crime clear-up rates).

Howard has hit his stride, Tony Blair is yet to do so in this campaign.

It was all the more galling for the prime minister that the repeat refrain in Howard's carefully constructed attack was "Isn't that why, in the Chancellor's words, we can't believe anything he says."

Chancellor of the Exchequer (chief economic minister) Gordon Brown was recently alleged by a biographer to have spoken those words on tape over his belief that he had a deal with Blair under which he should have handed over the leadership to him during the parliament which has just ended.

Perhaps the most telling moment in the Commons attack was when choirmaster Howard turned to the Labour benches and asked how many of them would be using photographs of Tony Blair on their election addresses.

Blushing prettily, a mere half dozen Labour MPs put up their hands. And that's the question. Is Tony Blair, once the titan who tugged his party along behind him, now a liability to Labour?

In 1997 and in 2001 his would-be MPs couldn't wait to be seen with him, to have the merest whiff of Blair magic dust sprinkled on their local efforts.

Now, they know, many traditional Labour supporters are in a sulk, either over the Iraq war or over the rightward drift of Labour's social and anti-terrorist policies. And many are keen to distance themselves from the prime minister.

It is the other parties who want Blair upfront in this campaign. One senior Liberal Democrat strategist, I hear, is urging that all their candidates should have a picture of Blair somewhere on their election leaflets. But only one that shows a chummy Tony alongside U.S. President George W.Bush.

The Lib Dems, incidentally, are likely to overcome the handicap of the obscure Paul Marsden, who is leaving the Commons, attempting to seize a final mini headline by re-defecting to the Labour Party. He had quit Labour and joined the Lib Dem ranks not so long ago over the war in Afghanistan.

Ratting is one thing, say MPs. Re-ratting is quite another. Marsden achieved some tabloid notoriety with his amours and some erotic poetry he posted on his Web site. A sample: "Her hips swaying and her red lips tight, then that smile so devastating in its might".

So did Labour really want him back? The best comment of the campaign so far came from an anonymous party spokesman: "I don't think appalling poetry is a reason not to be allowed to join the Labour Party."

One Liberal Democrat strategist is urging candidates to have a picture of Blair with Bush on their leaflets.

If Blair looked miffed at prime minister's question time he was positively tetchy at his inevitable joint appearance with Chancellor Brown to celebrate Labour's economic record, when, inevitably, he was questioned about their relationship.

Amid some lip-pursing and foot-tapping at the impertinence of such sallies, President -- sorry, Prime Minister Blair paid tribute to Brown and scotched the stories that after an election he would move the Chancellor out of the Treasury.

The truth is that he needs Brown more than ever before to reassure those questioning traditional Labour voters and to be able to make his government's successful economic stewardship the centrepiece of the campaign.

Luckily for him, Brown needs a big Labour majority too for when Blair goes, as he has promised to do before the next election.

But there is that tempting thought for his neighbour in No. 11 Downing Street, that the lower Blair's majority is after this election, the greater the pressures will be for Blair to quit sooner rather than later in the next Parliament.

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