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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 22:27 GMT 23:27 UK

Blair's triumph tarnished

Nick Assinder

Tony Blair has moved back into Downing Street after his historic second landslide, radically re-casting his cabinet and insisting he now has a mandate to transform Britain.

He lost no time in using his powerful new authority to show he was firmly in control of the government and Whitehall.

After a campaign which regularly saw him accused of being too cautious and failing to offer real leadership, Mr Blair was clearly out to prove there was iron in his political soul and that he was also capable of wielding the knife.

Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was the most senior minister to feel the cold steel as he was brusquely sacked and demoted to the job of leader of the House.

His demise was seen as the inevitable result of his gaffe-ridden career as Foreign Secretary and as Mr Blair's clearest sign that he is no soft touch.

The reshuffle also saw the prime minister carving out new ministries, changing the face of Whitehall, and promoting his own supporters to key jobs.

However, his return to No 10 was a far less euphoric affair than his triumphant 1997 entrance, and there was probably very good reason for that.

No effect

Although Mr Blair was hailing his historic full second term, he was painfully aware that fewer than one elector in four actually bothered to vote for him - 15% less than the number of people who did not vote at all.

Turnout in the election was at a record low and there were particularly poor showings in safe Labour seats, suggesting there was a clear anti-government movement or enormous apathy.

No matter what gloss was being put on that fact by ministers - suggesting, for example, it was a result of contentment or the Tories fault for failing to offer a proper opposition - it was a painful reminder that voters were simply not engaged by the election campaign.

The outcome of the election showed that the month-long campaign had little or no effect on voters' intentions, other than to turn them off voting at all.

One of the results of that, however, was to pitch the Tories into depressed turmoil and raise the real likelihood of a third Labour victory in a row.

But, while Mr Blair has obviously contemplated that possibility, he also knows he has a far bigger challenge ahead of him than the one he faced on the "new dawn" of 1 May 1997.

Four years down the line from now, he will not be able to go back to the country confessing he had not lived up to expectations and asking for yet another term to complete his programme.

Voters will demand to see concrete improvements in public services at the same time as benefiting from a continuingly sound economy.

Open to attack

Then there is the problem of the euro - a nettle Mr Blair may well want to grasp sooner rather than later.

Underneath all this, however, is the fact that the disastrously-low turnout of 59% - the worst since the end of the First World War - means his claims to have a mandate for anything are wide open to attack.

The fact that 41% of voters simply could not be persuaded to go into the polling booths is something that will be thrown back at the prime minister time and again.

And it is an issue he will have to get to grips with before voter apathy becomes a serious problem for British democracy.

Undoubtedly the expected referendum on the euro will engage more people, but that could only serve to underline the fact that voters will only turn out when they think they are being presented with real issues and genuine choices.

There will also be a temptation for the government to slide into arrogance and isolation - failings they have already been persistently accused of - and simply ignore all opposition.



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