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Blair plays down 'half-time' lead

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley

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Blair faces toughest battle yet in May 5 parliamentary elections. CNN's Robin Oakley reports.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Conservative leader Michael Howard says publicly that his party is 2-0 down at half-time in the British election. Is that a "Beware of the Underdog" warning, a plea for sympathy or a shrewd election tactic?

Football pundits can only find two examples this season of Premier League sides coming back from a two-goal deficit at half-time to win the match, so Howard's acknowledgment was hardly an encouragement to Tory supporters.

But some of those will remember as I do from reporting the 1970 election won for the Tories by Edward Heath that at one stage then Labour were 12 points in the lead in the opinion polls and few gave them much of a shout on that occasion either.

Sleeping in a little after his victory night, Heath was told by his housekeeper on waking that she had fielded a telephone call from the United States and told the caller not to bother him.

And who was it from? "Oh, a Mr. Richard Nixon." Presidential calls from the White House aren't treated quite so coolly these days.

While Howard was seeking to rally his troops by acknowledging the Conservatives are behind, Tony Blair had bad news from the polls as well. NOP in The Independent recorded a 10-point lead for Labour.

Bad news? Yes. The last thing Blair wants at this stage is for the impression to spread among Labour's traditional supporters that he is heading for another landslide victory. That will immediately increase the danger that Labour supporters who opposed the war will feel they can afford to sit this election out or vote for the anti-war Liberal Democrats without risking letting in the Conservatives.

No wonder that Blair's election supremo Alan Milburn rushed out a statement on Howard's two-goal-down admission insisting that it was a "backdoor strategy." He added: "In reality, as the prime minister has said, this election is close in the marginals ... our message to every Labour supporter is simple and direct. If you vote Tory you get Michael Howard. If you vote Liberal Democrat you are in danger of getting Michael Howard. And if you don't vote at all you are in danger of getting Michael Howard. Nobody will elect a Labour government for you-you have to do it for yourself."

Many shrewd election professionals still insist that the margins they see recorded in the opinion polls don't reflect the feeling they get when out in the streets. Labour is still jumpy on the turnout question and Blair's obvious irritation at the Iraq issue coming to the fore again only confirms that. After two landslide victories he is not used to pressure at election time and it shows.

Blair certainly seems to have lost one game. As both parties went about seeking the "business vote" Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown insisted that there would have to be "clear and unambiguous proof" that it would be in the UK's economic interests to join the single European currency before there could be any decision to do so.

That suggests that Blair is writing finis to his ambition of taking Britain into the euro before he ceases to be prime minister. Proof of a kind there may one day be. But never "clear, unambiguous proof" on such a subjective question. The business audience for Brown's remarks took them as a signal there would be no question of British entry during the next Parliament.

The battle for the business vote may seem something of an irrelevance. After all, businessmen only have one vote like the rest of us. But it is the imprimatur of the business bigwigs that counts. They have a sort of blackball power. If they insinuate that one party or another is unfit to be given charge of the country's finances then that affects economic optimism, a key determinant of many people's votes. But you have to say that one ambition that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown shared when they set out on the New Labour project was to make the question "Which is the business party?" as irrelevant in Britain as it is in the United States, and they have done so.

Michael Howard has clearly lost one key business vote on the issue he has chosen to highlight in this election. Digby Jones, Director General of the CBI has rejected the Tory idea of a cap on immigration, as espoused by the Tories and supported a points system of controls, as advocated by the government under Tory pressure.

Politicians, he insisted, must show some courage on a tricky issue and acknowledge "that if you get a 1 per cent increase in migration you get a 1.5 per cent increase in the wealth of the nation, that 97 per cent of all the immigrants who've come in are in work and acknowledge that if it were not for immigrant labor our leisure industry, our agricultural sector, our construction industry, let alone the public sector simply wouldn't have enough people to do the jobs." To adapt the Tory slogan, no he isn't thinking what they are thinking.

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