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Piqued Blair craves voters' love

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?
Liberal Democrat
Robin Oakley
UK election

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The trouble with this British election is that the phoney war lasted so long before it that most of the parties had already dispensed their bribes and deployed most of their arguments.

Pensioners, for example, have done rather well. The Tories offered them a lump off their local council taxes. So Chancellor (Chief Finance Minister) Gordon Brown offered them a lump off too in the Budget he published just before the election. And the Liberal Democrats are offering free personal care for pensioners plus an extra £100 a month for the over-75s.

Pure coincidence of course that pollsters have found that 74 per cent of pensioners are likely to register a vote compared with only 34 per cent of the under-35s. But don't expect free Lib Dem iPods or club vouchers for the 18-25s with Labour or the Tories. Sometimes it doesn't pay to be young.

So far this campaign has been a tedious barrage of statistics as the parties have each sought to prove that the others' economic policies are due to fall into a black hole. We desperately need some human event to enliven it, as when Labour's deputy leader John Prescott woke up the 2001 campaign by lashing out instinctively at a protester who had thrown an egg.

Prescott, whose punching power demonstrated then that Labour had a straight left as well as a Soft Left and a Hard Left, does not deal in subtlety. He once admitted: "I'm not a fancy rapier man-more of a broadsword. Not for me the flesh wound. I prefer to take the head off."

And it seems that Prescott is warming up for another scrap. He told the Independent newspaper this week: "I love a fight. I love coming out to Tories seats and roughing them up a bit." Typically he started with the Folkestone constituency of Conservative leader Michael Howard.

Prescott also uttered the wisest words we have had so far when he admitted: "Governments are never loved ... when you have been eight years in government there is always something people aren't happy with."

That, I reckon, is Tony Blair's problem and the reason why he has looked a little piqued through the campaign so far. He still wants to be loved and still hasn't quite realized that the best an aspiring third-term prime minister can hope for is respect.

In a world where the cult of youth seems to be an ever-rolling tide Michael Howard, I guess, took a risk at the launch of his party's manifesto by drawing attention to the fact that he was 63, saying that left him with "one more battle to fight."

Blair is 51, and Charles Kennedy, whose wife Sarah displayed an impeccable sense of election planning by giving birth to their first child, Donald John, at midnight on Monday, is only 45. But those of us who have hit the big Six-Oh will have a sneaking regard for someone who is not afraid to confess to approaching pensioner status. And so, I suspect, will those eager-to-vote over-55s.

Where Howard may have lost a round in the battle over which party's economic plans can be believed was in his failure to explain in response to questions how the Tories are going to make the room for early tax cuts. Yes they are planning to save money on "waste" and bureaucracy. But everybody knows that that takes time. And getting rid of bureaucrats is never as cheap as it looks from the Opposition benches.

Every Opposition whose initiatives I have reported on through the past nine elections has talked of saving money by cutting red tape or eliminating tax dodging. And nine times out of 10 they have failed to achieve the sums set out. Too often it becomes fairy gold.

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