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Tory leader's high-risk strategy

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) -- While some reveled in the royal wedding at the weekend others of us escaped to the Grand National, the greatest horse racing spectacle in the world.

But on Sunday it was back to political business. Has Conservative leader Michael Howard backed a winner by putting immigration policy at the heart of his campaign, accusing the government of "pussyfooting" and "failing to get a grip?"

A cold hard look at the opinion poll evidence reveals the temptations. MORI record 23 percent of electors calling immigration the single most important issue for them. Sir Robert Worcester's polling group say seven out of 10 people reckon that immigration laws ought to be tougher. Among working class respondents eight out of 10 take that view. And of the over-55s, the age group most likely to vote, three in four echo that opinion.

Michael Howard is playing it cleverly, with aides pointing out that you can hardly accuse the son of Jewish immigrants of playing the race card. And he constantly repeats the refrain that such issues cannot be brushed under the carpet, hoping to earn extra points for a political courage in taking on old taboos that he implies the other party leaders lack.

Having known Michael Howard since I was on the Liverpool Daily Post in the 1960s and he was an unsuccessful candidate for a Liverpool seat, I would never suspect him of being a racist.

But I also know, not least from having played him at table tennis, that he has a ruthless will to win to which pretty well everything else is subjugated. (I still think one key break point serve was a little dodgy.) And I wonder if he is wise to play the immigration card as hard as he is doing.

Howard was wounded in the past by fellow minister Ann Widdecombe's claim that there was "something of the night about him." His personal ratings have rarely warmed up beyond grudging acceptability.

And the Tories have suffered from time to time from the label of "the nasty party" pinned on them by opponents in the media. Banging away on issues like immigration and gypsy "travelers" may help to solidify some core Tory votes.

But aura comes into it too. Is it really going to help win back the middle class floaters, especially when the governor of the Bank of England says that immigrants have helped keep down Britain's interest and inflation rates and the Confederation of British Industry expresses gratitude for the way in which they have mopped up jobs others will not do and helped the economy to go on growing without overheating?

There is, as Howard says, room for debate on the issue of immigration. Let us hope that debate is what we get.

Tony Blair and Michael Howard are not pulling their punches. The Tory leader keeps referring to the prime minister's "smirking." Blair calls his opponent's policies "a fraudulent prospectus." Meanwhile, Charles Kennedy for the Liberal Democrats insists he will stay above the fray.

It is, of course, as much of an election tactic as the government's emphasis on its economic record or Howard's willingness to play on fears about immigration. But there'll be no mud-slinging or name-calling from Kennedy, we are told. Moderation will continue to be his tone.

The danger of that, as an old sweat Labour MP once put it to me is that "Those who keep to the middle of the road tend to get run over." The first day of the campaign proper on Monday in a small way demonstrated the ruthlessness of the two major parties, who both fear that the Lib Dems could ruin their result by taking a cluster of key seats off them.

The Lib Dems had announced they would have their press conference at 7.30 a.m., about as early as parties ever start these things. So Labour decided they would start, with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown launching the economic section of their manifesto, at 7.20. And with the Conservatives deciding to launch their manifesto at 8.00 a.m. that left no time for the media's big hitters to make it to the Lib Dems media conference in between.

Petty, unnecessary, and absolutely typical of what we can expect in a grudge match campaign.

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