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Tuesday, 2 January, 2001, 17:18 GMT
All eyes on the election
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair looks set for a second victory
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

The first year of the new millennium proved a bit of a roller coaster ride for British politics.

Tony Blair saw the shine fall come off his New Labour government and William Hague staged what briefly looked like a Conservative comeback.

By the end of the year, however, things have come virtually full circle The prime minister once again enjoys a commanding lead in the opinion polls and Mr Hague's recovery has stalled.

Chancellor Gordon Brown
Brown's giveaways not helped
The last 12 months were always supposed to be Labour's year of delivery.

Ministers had spent the previous couple of years claiming they were in the "post-election, pre-delivery" stage of its first term, but there was a growing sense of frustration among voters - particularly Labour ones - that little was changing for the better.

Extra funding was, following the tight spending restraints imposed by Mr Blair for his first two years at Number 10, finally pumped into the NHS and other public services. But they still appeared to stumble from one crisis to another.

The transport system, given only a low priority early on in the life Mr Blair's government, progressively became a major issue with voters. It ends the year in historic chaos.

Control freakery

And then there were the continuing rows over Tony Blair's alleged "control freakery".

Mr Blair's man in Wales, Alun Michael, quit his job as first secretary and the man the prime minister had opposed, Rhodri Morgan, was voted in instead.

But the pre-eminent instance of counter-productive control freakishness came, of course, with London's mayoral election.

Labour's long, chaotic lead up to the poll selecting a candidate for the job often reached the levels of Ealing comedy. Ultimately, it was all for naught as Ken Livingstone won the job.

Truckers protesting at fuel tax
Truckers demo hit Labour
The shenanigans did more damage to Labour's reputation and, despite a giveaway budget by Chancellor Gordon Brown in March, voters were ready to kick the party where it hurt: in the polling booth.

May's local and London elections saw Labour lose almost 600 council seats and the party's official mayoral candidate, Frank Dobson, scrape in to a dismal third place.

Handbagged

The summer saw things get worse with backbench rebellions over the air traffic control sell-off and pensions.

The arrival of the new Blair baby lightened things temporarily but was swiftly followed by the prime minister's disastrous, slow-handclapped appearance before the Women's Institute.

Throughout, there was the continuing row over spin doctors in the background and a series of books claiming to expose rifts between Mr Blair and Mr Brown.

Then there were the protests over pensions and fuel taxes which hit the government badly and saw the Tories achieve that which had been previously deemed the improbable: taking the lead in the polls.

It was, however, only brief. Mr Blair's famously sweat-soaked conference speech appeared to turn the tide back the prime minister's way.

This was all bad news for William Hague who started the year with the return to the Tory frontbench of Michael Portillo, the man many saw as his successor.

Mr Hague had earlier a good spring, seizing the political agenda on issues such as law and order and pensions.

Tory leader William Hague
Hague seems stalled
He reaped the electoral reward in May's local election. But he also later saw what had been one of his party's safest seats, Romsey, snatched by the Liberal Democrats in a by-election.

This was a worrying sign for Mr Hague that while voters were fed up with Labour, they still were not ready to back the Tories.

The Tory leader continued to give strong showings at prime minister's questions in the Commons but failed to translate his performances in the chamber into popularity with voters.

The annual party conference also descended into an internal row between Ann Widdecombe and a third of the shadow cabinet over cannabis.

'Labour lite'

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy had a mixed year with some good local election results and the sensational Romsey triumph.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Kennedy wants to look different
Still in the process of consolidating his position as party leader, he deliberately loosened the ties with New Labour in an attempt to stop voters viewing his party as "Labour lite".

His personal popularity both in the country and his own party grew. But he faces a difficult future.

From here on in and for all the parties, everything is about one thing: the next election.

Despite rumours of an April poll, most money is still on 3 May and to all intents and purposes the campaign has already started.

Mr Blair is back on his favourite ground, electioneering, and Mr Hague is battling to keep up.

The book is already open on how large Labour's majority might be, with bets falling somewhere between about 80 and 120.

And there is little doubt it will be a fierce fight. All in all, 2001 looks like it could make the outgoing year seem like a stroll in the park.

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See also:

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