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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April 2005, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Defection: Bad news for Labour?
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Sedgemore to the left, Howard to the right - Tony Blair just hopes most voters are stuck in the middle with him.

Charles Kennedy and Brian Sedgemore
Kennedy risks left wing tag with Sedgemore

At least, that was the message the prime minister attempted to get across at his daily press conference.

Mr Blair appeared relatively relaxed about the defection to the Liberal Democrats of awkward squad veteran Brian Sedgemore on the basis it was further proof Labour really is New.

After brushing aside the defection, Mr Blair almost boasted that he had never pretended to be a leftie.

He had always been New Labour, he said, suggesting the party had known exactly what it was voting for when it made him leader - and it was a decision which secured two historic landslides.

There will also be the underlying message that all those unpopular left wing policies abandoned in the wake of the years in the wilderness have now found a new home with the Liberal Democrats, no matter how loudly Charles Kennedy denies it.

Real dangers

Then there is Michael Howard who, Mr Blair claims, has no programme for government and appears to be bidding to come a good second in the election.

The Tory leader's attacks on his honesty and character and calls for voters to "send a message" to Labour are, the prime minister insists, a sign of desperation.

Tony Blair
Blair wants the middle ground
But there are real dangers here for Tony Blair and Labour. And, whatever the front, he is well aware of them.

Mr Sedgemore is dangerous for the obvious reason that he has given large numbers of disillusioned Labour voters permission to abandon their habits and vote Liberal Democrat.

The prime minister knows there are many Labour supporters who, while being deeply unhappy with the direction of "their" party, just cannot bring themselves to vote for anyone else.

There was already a worry that many of them might simply stay at home on 5 May.

But to see a man like Mr Sedgemore, who has a longer history in the party than Mr Blair, saying it is OK to abandon decades of party loyalty must spook the prime minister.

Back door

He betrays that concern every time he warns voters, as he did at his press conference, that in some key marginal constituencies the result could be decided by a few hundred votes.

A vote for the Lib Dems will only risk allowing Mr Howard into No 10 through the back door, he warns.

Michael Howard
Howard has spoken of being 2-0 down
Meanwhile, Mr Howard's talk of being 2-0 down at half time and his calls for voters to "send a message" is far from an admission of defeat, even if many see that as a realistic assessment of the Tories' current poll ratings.

Instead it is an attempt to achieve precisely that mixture of stay-at-home and protest votes from electors convinced Labour is going to win that might indeed hand him a surprise victory.

Mr Blair has suggested this is exactly the strategy the Tory elections chief, Lynton Crosby, has imported from Australia where it pulled of a sensational and unexpected victory for Tory John Howard.

Eight days

Whether such a strategy will work in a three party state with no compulsory voting is an untested question.

Meanwhile, Mr Sedgemore's defection will have unpredictable results for the Lib Dems.

It may well persuade some of those Labour waverers to finally cross over. But it also risks suggesting Mr Kennedy now leads the new left-wing party.

And that could turn off the hesitating Tory voters that the Lib Dems probably need even more.

There might only be eight days to go - but this election may not be over just yet.

How the newspapers are reporting the defection

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