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Thursday, 7 June, 2001, 21:02 GMT 22:02 UK
Counting the cost of the election
Cartoons of William Hague and Tony Blair
Hague and Blair had plenty to lose from poll
Nick Assinder

It may have been one of the most lacklustre elections in recent memory but the result of the 2001 campaign was always going to have far reaching consequences.

All three of the parties and their leaders had a lot to gain or lose from the outcome and, according to many observers, so did parliamentary democracy.

Even before the polls closed, Tony Blair was facing claims - based on opinion poll showings - that another landslide victory could, in effect, turn him into an elected dictator and New Labour into a toothless fan club.

Opposition leader William Hague was being told that unless he could pull of a measurable Conservative revival he would face an immediate leadership challenge and would be judged by history as the Neil Kinnock of the Tories.

William Hague and his wife Ffion
Hague always under Labour cloud
The resulting inquest would see his party tearing itself apart and even splitting in two over Europe.

The Liberal Democrats' Charles Kennedy was quietly warned that, if his undoubted personal popularity was not translated into seats in the Commons, his new-found fame would be short lived.

Underneath all this speculation was the widespread talk about what a second Labour majority would do to parliament in general and the Commons in particular.

Nothing changed

What was notable about all the speculation was that it appeared to have been virtually unchanged by the four-week campaign and the relative performances of the individuals involved.

Long before the campaign kicked off it was predicted that Mr Kennedy, if he could maintain his self-discipline, would have a good campaign and that his party stood every chance of increasing its vote - not that that would necessarily be translated into seats in the Commons.

It was also believed that Mr Hague's famous parliamentary skills would pay dividends and he would keep his cool, run a smooth and professional campaign - and lose.

Labour leader Tony Blair
Blair was always the favourite
As for Tony Blair, the common perception was that he would succeed in his dream of winning that famous second term, but with little enthusiasm from voters.

The only rogue element that entered the equation as the campaign wore on was the growing poll suggestion that Labour was on course for another landslide majority of anything up to 200 seats.

New dawn

At the beginning, many found it inconceivable that Labour could hold onto its massive 1997 majority, let alone increase it.

Equally, however, few believed the Tories could pull off a victory or that Mr Kennedy could achieve his party's long-dreamed-of breakthrough.

The memory of that day in 1997, when Britain woke up to Tony Blair's much-quoted "new dawn", was still too fresh to contemplate a sudden reversal just four years later.

Even now it is sometimes hard to accept that, on 1 May 1997, the Tories lost 178 seats, 144 of them to Labour, and plummeted to their lowest Commons showing for 91 years.

The party was left with no seats at all in Scotland or Wales and just 165 in England, compared with Labour's massive 419 and the Lib Dems 46. The Tory share of the vote had also slumped to a record low of 31%, compared with 43% in 1992.

Performing to type

As it turned out, the 2001 campaign saw the three main leaders and their parties performing pretty much to type.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Kennedy showed he was here to stay
Charles Kennedy undoubtedly had the best of it with a sure-footed and surprisingly energetic campaign which was partly thanks to his guaranteed extra media coverage, but also largely as a result of his personality.

If anything, he did even better than expected and, whatever the outcome in terms of actual Commons seats, his leadership must be secure.

William Hague also won praise for the way he personally handled the Tory campaign, although the party machine was attacked for a lack of focus and a tendency to switch tack whenever it seemed opportune to do so.

But Mr Hague probably had the most to lose of all three leaders. There has never been any shortage of gossip and plotting over the Tory leadership and many believe, if he really has failed to pull off a significant revival, he will be forced out, or could even quit.

Leadership challenge

The Tory party would then be plunged into a divisive leadership challenge with unforeseeable consequences - and that could be enough to stay Mr Hague's assassins' hands.

If he has managed a reasonable showing, whittling the Labour majority down to double figures, he may be secure.

As for Tony Blair, he will have to lose this election, or see his majority slashed to the danger territory of 50 to 80 seats before any serious question mark is raised over his future - other than when he may chose to hand over the reins to Gordon Brown or another chosen successor.

His greatest task if he has won will be finally to reverse the disillusion that has beset his government and prove that he really can transform Britain for the better.

And there will be many, not all on the opposition benches, just waiting for the opportunity to trip him up.

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