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Blair playing the 'team player'

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) -- Conservative leader Michael Howard has been chiding Tony Blair for being all words and no action. Risky then that Labour's manifesto, launched Wednesday, stretched to 112 pages compared with the 38 pages of Howard's own offering. But they were smaller pages.

Labour is worried that Blair has become a liability to his party rather than a potential election winner. His photograph this time was relegated to an inside page. And while Howard introduced the Tory manifesto solo, Blair was flanked by six Labour ministers, all of them standing behind sawn-off white columns of the kind that might have been used to prop up some ancient Roman ruin. The other members of the Cabinet, who had filed on in darkness, sat on chairs behind. "If you don't like the smiley one," the message was "then remember we're a team."

Beside Blair, yet again, was Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown who, according to the opinion polls, is still trusted by the British people and whose gruff, slightly stiffer speaking style somehow makes him seem less of a spinner, even though he can double-count and gloss over awkward facts with the best of them.

Once again Brown was affable, assured and ready, when prompted by questioners, to express his total confidence in Blair despite all their spats over the past two years.

Brown was cheery despite Blair's insistence to questioners that despite his promise that this is his last election he will be serving, if re-elected, throughout the next Parliament. "I've said I will serve a full term. That is what people are electing if they elect a Labour government."

Perhaps after nine elections I am a touch cynical. But Brown, I suspect, is being so jolly because a deal has been done for Blair to slip away a lot sooner than that -- another heart murmur perhaps or sudden "family reasons" halfway through the next Parliament?

Perhaps, too, as Brown hears the prime minister assure the media that, if re-elected, he will serve a full Parliament he thinks of the remark he made to Blair when told that the prime minister would not be quitting in his favor during the Parliament that has just ended: "There is nothing you could ever say to me now that I could believe." Well, that's what his latest biographer reported, and Brown has never denied it.

Blair admitted that trust was the issue. He said he had never "disrespected" those who had taken a different view from him on Iraq but a decision had had to be made about Saddam Hussein. What he wants now is for people to look at Labour's international policy in the round and not to "disrespect" him. I thought he looked perkier than he has done for weeks. Less so John Prescott. It would have been interesting to have a microphone pick up Prescott's muttering when ITN's correspondent Nick Robinson was quizzing the prime minister about Labour's broken promises on raising taxes and imposing tuition fees. It would have been a "Prince Charles moment," though nothing quite so mild as the heir to the throne's "these bloody people" comment on the media.

The big gap in Labour's plans is any kind of plan to deal with Britain's growing pensions crisis. Former CBI chief Adair Turner has warned that it will either be a matter of increasing spending and taxation, raising the pension age or forcing people to save more. Those are choices to be made by government. But now Labour is saying that there will have to be a national debate first and that there is unlikely to be legislation during the next Parliament. A four-year national debate? That is running away from the problem. Not exactly a case of "at our best when at our boldest" as Blair urged his party conference two years ago.

I am frequently asked about the contrast between UK and U.S. elections and the biggest single factor is money. The latest U.S. elections are reckoned to have involved the spending of $4 billion, with $1.2 billion on the presidential race alone. You can buy a lot of razzmatazz for that. We get a British election all-in for £40 million ($75 million). At the last General Election the Conservatives centrally spent $24 million, Labour $20 million and the Liberal Democrats a tenth of that.

Nationally the parties are confined to spending around £15 million. In their individual constituencies would-be MPs are limited to spending £5,483 plus 6.2 pence per elector in rural areas and 4.6 pence per elector in cities. At least in Britain you don't have to be a rich man or have access to big money to embark on a political career and paid-for political advertising is banned. But sadly politics here too is becoming ever more professionalized, ever more dependent on polls and focus groups and targeted cold-calling of some 800,000 people in key seats which could determine the outcome of the election.

The result is that election veterans like me find this current contest so far curiously sterile and antiseptic. There is no grand sweep of ideological debate any more. It has become instead an itsy bitsy argument about who will manage things better. There has been no sense in this election of passion, of humanity, of sheer instinctive politics. Labour, it used to be said, "sprang from the bowels of the trades union movement", which later gave it a bowel problem. New Labour sometimes looks to have sprung from the union of a clipboard and a slide rule.

It was summed up really by the array of ministers alongside Blair, each chiming in turn to read a pre-determined section of the manifesto. Obedient, pre-programmed and calculated to give you every accent from Scottish toughie (Health Minister John Reid) to suburban posh (Trade Minister Patricia Hewitt) it was just the sort of school discipline the Tories bang on about in their manifesto.

What a joy it was when the classroom order was disrupted by the mobile phone of Home Secretary Charles Clarke going off. Blair's look could have killed at 15 paces. I wouldn't like to have been Charles in the headmaster's study afterwards.

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