Skip to main content
Where I Live
A-Z Index

BBC News

BBC Election 2005

Watch the BBC Election News
  • Election news alerts
  • Email services
  • Mobiles/PDAs
  • News for your site
Last Updated: Thursday, 28 April, 2005, 22:09 GMT 23:09 UK
Crucial campaigning wages in marginals

By Andrew Marr
Political Editor, BBC News

Lord Goldsmith
Lord Goldsmith's advice is less shocking than rumoured

For most of the year Westminster is where national political obsessives have to be, preferably in the flesh but certainly in spirit.

In the final campaigning days of this election, it is the worst place to be based.

Yes, for mere convenience, it hosts the party press conferences.

But with the opinion polls barely flickering, everyone now thinks the real fights are in scattered constituencies all across Britain.

That's where the story is.

'Foggy watchtower'

Like most journalists, I have been doing my best to get to places where the struggle seems close - East Midlands seats like Northampton South; marginal constituencies in Kent and Hertfordshire; the battleground seats of Dorset; Lib Dem hopefuls such as Maidenhead.

I've talked to candidates everywhere. I've picked up the rumours and the betting in the party campaign headquarters.

But the demands of television newsgathering mean we spend far too much time in offices and editing rooms a few hundred yards from the empty Commons; and if that sounds apologetic, it is meant to be.

Journalism is nine-tenths being in the right places at the right time.

And because of the endless hunger of the TV news beast, I ain't.

Yet even from the foggy watchtower of the deserted centre, a few things are clear and worth discussing.

Leaked advice

Let's start with Iraq.

Has there ever been a bigger own goal by the custodians of official secrecy than the advice about the war's legality or otherwise, drafted by Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, on 7 March 2003?

Michael Howard
The Conservatives have pushed the "Blair is a liar" slogan
At the time, and ever since, British politics has been acrid with the suspicion that this quiet commercial lawyer had told Tony Blair that his friend George Bush's proposed invasion was illegal - and that he was then hauled into an office in Downing Street where "Tony cronies" beat him with pashminas until he changed his mind.

"Blair's illegal war" has become as much part of the rhetoric of the left as "the missing weapons of mass destruction."

But, according to the advice finally published, following leaks to the BBC and others, it seems that Lord Goldsmith's story is markedly less shocking and interesting than rumoured - and certainly less worrying than the woeful tale of British intelligence before the war began.

He hummed, hawed, balanced, warned, weighed and worried... but came down, as Mr Blair expected and wanted him to, as believing that the war was probably legal.

The pressure on him in those final 10 days must have been intense. But he boiled away his reservations, rather than flipping his position.

In short, had this advice been published in full - not just released to the cabinet but handed out to every MP and newspaper - it would have caused far less damage to Mr Blair than two years of secrecy and rumour have done.

We will have to wait to see the full damage done in this election campaign; the Liberal Democrats are privately excited by the Iraq effect on swathes of academic, middle-class constituencies.

Tony Blair
Labour has failed to dominate the daily election news agenda
The Conservatives, who backed the war, and still do, believe that the tarnishing of Mr Blair's reputation is helping them in many other Labour-Tory marginals, particularly among working class voters.

Their gamble has been to go so forthrightly and relentlessly on the "Blair is a liar" theme.

Labour has lost five days or so of campaigning nationally on their favoured themes thanks to Iraq, but the Conservatives are taking a risk too.

Some voters must be put off by this, as well as won.

Tactical errors?

Indeed, technically, it may be that both of the larger parties have made tactical errors.

The Conservative decision to put Mr Howard so far to the front, so rarely surrounded by the rest of the Tory family - as he was when he was first chosen as leader - risks making him look isolated, an angry protester heckling the steamroller.

Is there enough generosity and optimism in the Tory campaign to win properly in Middle Britain?

Equally, Labour has failed to dominate the daily election news agenda.

This is very odd for a party that has been in power for eight years, spending a huge proportion of the national wealth, and with a reputation for ruthless campaigning.

Did nobody go through the departmental five-year plans, holding back big announcements for the campaign? Clearly not.

Instead, they seem to have assumed that the mere fact of the prime minister, or another minister, saying something, constituted news.

It is an illusion produced by being in power, and has visibly failed.

Charles Kennedy
There is a cheerful air in the Kennedy camp
What then of the Liberal Democrats?

After a miserable start to their campaign, dominated by Charles Kennedy's apparent failure to recall the essential detail of his own local income tax plans and a sluggish failure to achieve their usual campaign rise in the polls, things have improved for them.

The defection of Brian Sedgemore, though hardly a household name as an MP, did send a shiver through the Labour left.

The Lib Dem decision to highlight the issues surrounding the Iraq war was followed, almost as if choreographed, by the leak of Lord Goldsmith's legal advice.

Aiming relatively low compared to the larger parties, there is a relaxed and cheerful air at the moment in the Kennedy camp.

Serious campaign

It may be an illusion too, of course.

In earlier elections, the Lib Dems have risen further than in this one.

Standing proudly aside from most of the Labour-Conservative crossfire, they may have failed to grab popular attention as much as they need to.

We will see. Everyone involved in the campaigning, hacks and politicians both, is dog-tired, summoning their last energies for the final burst.

This has been a serious campaign for anyone interested in serious politics: immigration, tax, spending, law and order, the Iraq war and education have all been heavily debated, even if the environment, transport, Europe and defence have not been discussed enough.

Yet the barely-moving polls and the lack of major gaffes or policy collapses has made it duller than I, for one, hoped it would be.

Ah well, there's still time yet.