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Friday, 18 May, 2001, 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK

Andrew Marr's Campaign: Week 2

By BBC News political editor Andrew Marr

This, effectively the second week of election campaigning, will be remembered for about ten seconds of film of John Prescott's sudden left jab at a portly young hunt-supporter who had just thrown an egg at him in Rhyl.

The nation was divided, but not on the usual left-right or young-old grounds.


" Mr Prescott's age, famously short fuse, and the shock of being hit by something unexpected at point-blank range all counted in his favour "

Slightly more people in straw polls were with the deputy prime minister than thought him a yob - but only slightly more.

Has the incident moved people's votes?

It seems unlikely.

Tony Blair chose to laugh the whole thing off, and that was the general Labour line.

"John is John" was described by one colleague as making the Prime Minister sound like the mother of a teenage hooligan.

Teachers and other professionals contacted the BBC to point out they would be sacked for similar behaviour.

And it is hard to think of another senior politician who would be allowed similar latitude.

But Mr Prescott's age, famously short fuse, and the shock of being hit by something unexpected at point-blank range all counted in his favour.

Little political energy was expended on the incident, even by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Attention diverted

Indeed, Mr Prescott may have done the prime minister a favour by diverting attention from the other great moment of electoral theatre this week, the ferocious harangue Mr Blair received from Sharon Storer when he visited Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Selly Oak, Birmingham.

Ms Storer was profoundly upset at the way her partner, who has lymphatic cancer, was being treated.

She was not going to miss her chance to kebab Mr Blair, who had just been launching Labour's election manifesto.

His expression as she refused to be pacified, argued with, shut up or charmed was as memorable as Margaret Thatcher's when she was skewered on television over her role in the sinking of the Belgrano.


" After their storming first week, the Conservatives have revelled in Labour's embarrassments but have failed to shift the battle substantially away from the economy and public services "

Until Mr Prescott's punch, these pictures of the prime minister ambushed looked likely to dominate television election debate for days.

Mr Blair, though, reacts well to a verbal roughing-up.

His press conference the next morning was his best performance in the campaign so far.

Tory tax cuts

He grabbed the Storer story as a vivid image of why Labour's plans for re-investment were so desperately needed and contrasted them to the legacy of the campaign's first week - the alleged 20bn Tory cuts hinted at by the party's treasury spokesman, Oliver Letwin.

Labour says its internal polling shows the 20bn figure is doing the Conservatives serious damage, however much they hotly deny it.

The public polls still show Labour with a massive lead - one had it up to an almost indecent 28 points.

The Tories say they simply do not believe the polls - in Mr Hague's words: "If there are so many people who love this government, how come you never meet any of them?"

But perhaps a harder tactical question for the Conservative campaign is posed by the saliency of issues, which continues to show that health, education and crime matter far more to voters than the Tories' preferred battleground of Europe, asylum or even tax.

After their storming first week, the Conservatives have revelled in Labour's embarrassments but have failed to shift the battle substantially away from the economy and public services.

Crime broadcast

Their highly dramatic, even shocking, party election broadcast on crime was an obvious attempt to switch the agenda.

Wily Labour saw the hook in that bait and declined to bite.

Friday's asylum speeches were another attempt, but Mr Hague's sensitivity on the race question meant his message was more wrapped with soothing words than it would otherwise have been.

As often happens, John Townend's remarks have had precisely the opposite effect on his party than the one he had hoped for.

Mr Hague himself seems to be enjoying the campaign thoroughly and has produced well-made, passionate speeches.

But his policy of avoiding cross-questioning at London press conferences, something Labour and the Lib Dems make a point of submitting themselves to, is counting against him in the media.

It certainly draws the sting from the Tories' accusation that Labour is running away from debate.

Manifesto launch

Perhaps the biggest personal surprise is Charles Kennedy.

The Liberal Democrat leader had been largely written off by the pundits ahead of this campaign.

But, in the week when he launched his manifesto, he has been performing with flair, self-confidence and passion.

He has been funny, while his pungent put-downs of the other leaders, particularly William Hague, will win him a place in future dictionaries of political quotations.

Overall, after their rocky start, Labour's basic self-confidence is back.

The Tories badly need to jolt Mr Blair and Gordon Brown off their relentless focus on public services if they are to start to close the gap.

With almost three weeks to go, they still have plenty of time.


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