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Does Howard regret dumping the blond?

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley

'Blond tousled terror' Johnson was dumped from Howard's team.
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Blair faces toughest battle yet in May 5 parliamentary elections. CNN's Robin Oakley reports.
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Robin Oakley
UK election

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The best thing about banging your head against the wall is when you get to stop doing so. Ten days out from polling day Britain's politicians must know the feeling.

The most intriguing finding from the opinion polls which seem agreed on a Labour lead and a near static Tory vote in the low thirty-percents is that the longer the campaign goes on the less people trust politicians of all parties.

Over the past week, according to ICM, the proportion saying that Tony Blair's Labour Party has the best policy on a range of issues has increased on only a single subject, health, while falling back on six other main concerns.

So have Michael Howard's Conservatives been advancing in public approval of their nostrums for running the country? Oh no. The Tories too have improved their standing on just one issue-tax-and fallen back on all the others.

Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats have had less of an adverse reaction, but even they have merely held their own. In terms of voting intention the Don't Knows measured by ICM have increased from an eighth of electors to a fifth.

John Curtice, the Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, notes that the more we see of politicians during this campaign , the less we like them.

YouGov's polling, he says, has shown that in the past week more voters have become convinced that all three leaders "cannot be trusted to tell the truth" and are "weak". Fewer think that either Blair or Howard "has sensible ideas for Britain's future."

The figure to watch over the next few days will be the poll standing of the Liberal Democrats. In the last two elections, in 1997 and in 2001, it was at this point in the campaign that their fortunes lifted several points.

Some psephologists have doubted that they will manage the same lift on this occasion, having started the campaign at a much higher point than at any time since the 1980s.

Against that, Iraq has hit the news again, and if anybody stands to benefit from that it is the one major party which opposed the war.

One thing which is noticeable about this election is that there are fewer posters up everywhere.

This is a phenomenon noted in his election diary by Labour's longtime maverick MP Austin Mitchell, as he lamented the lack of people to talk to: "No election meetings because no-one turns up. This campaign is run by undertakers and has all the joy of a funeral but fewer cars. Trees used to vote Tory; empty, desolate houses Liberal, now there are no posters at all".

I did see a couple of Conservative posters on my nearest main road, slightly surprising in an area of many incomers given the focus Howard is putting on curbing immigration. But then both houses are occupied by leading Conservative MPs. I guess they didn't have the option...

In a contest which is grinding, rather than bouncing, along, one ex-minister has been heard to complain: "It's a presidential campaign where all the parties have got the wrong choice as president."

Certainly there has been a noticeable difference between Labour and Conservatives in the focus put on the leadership. Well aware that the Chancellor is much more popular than him and that Labour needs to keep the focus on its economic achievements rather than let the campaign become a referendum on him, Blair has made frequent appearances in a double act with Gordon Brown.

Howard, by contrast, has been flying solo. You rarely see another member of the Tory Front Bench out with him.

There are, it seems, three reasons for that. One is that Howard, who has had to do a lot of waiting in his career, not least to be selected for a winnable Tory seat, is determined to enjoy his time in the limelight.

Secondly, the Tories remain short of big hitters with media appeal. The final factor is that several of the senior Tories simply cannot afford to spend time on the national election trail-they are too busy defending home base from Liberal Democrat attacks. David Davis, Oliver Letwin and Theresa May are all handicapped in that way.

Napoleon used to say that the key quality he sought in his generals was that they should be lucky. Howard is unlucky in having generals who can only afford to turn up for the occasional battle.

It is a pity therefore that the amours of Boris Johnson, one of the Tories' few nationally recognizable figures and the MP for Henley in the last Parliament, led to Howard dumping the blond tousled terror from his Front Bench team.

Boris has the distinction of being the only candidate in this election whose father is fighting another seat (the Liberal Democrat-held Teignbridge in Devon) in an effort to join him on the green leather benches of the Commons.

Johnson fils went to campaign for a day for Johnson pere last week, with the events including a squash match which the younger, less fit man won.

"I know he has a tough fight in Henley" said Stanley Johnson, presumably tongue in cheek, and he added. "Every moment away from the constituency increases his majority".

Given what the polls are finding, there could be some truth in that. In politics too it may be that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

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