86. Running in the election battlegrounds

With just two days to go before the election, I spent this weekend touring the constituencies. Four hours hacking up the golf course followed by a five mile run in Conservativeshire, and a twenty mile cycle ride around a southeast marginal.

Maybe this wasn’t the most comprehensive of opinion polling operations, but there’s every chance it’ll be as reliable as many. It’s been a tricky election campaign to judge, and I suspect that even the parties themselves are uncertain exactly how it’ll finish.

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Three weeks ago (it seems like a lifetime after so much wall-to-wall election coverage) I wrote that this election was going to be all about trust in Tony Blair. And for two weeks, it seemed that the opposite was the case. Taxation, education, and immigration dominated the early exchanges, as the hustings struggled to splutter into life.

And then it all changed, as the devastatingly-timed and systematic leaking of critical Iraq documents belatedly ignited the campaign.

The Attorney General’s ‘unequivocal’ advice on the legality of the invasion was always kept secret by the government, but suddenly the publication of major extracts forced release of his entire, and entirely uncertain, opinion. At the weekend, minutes emerged from a meeting in Downing Street in July 2002, when it was clear not only that Tony Blair was already asking his lawyers to prepare a case for war, but equally that they were comprehensively failing to find that justification. Then yesterday, the family of another British soldier killed in Iraq formally announced their blame of the Prime Minister for the death of a father, husband and son. Emotive.

Iraq has become The Issue Which Just Won’t Go Away.

I don’t think that there is, seriously, any other issue left in this election worth the talking. The Conservative leader, Michael Howard, jumped into the gap with a series of election statements and posters which broke convention in their direct accusation that Tony Blair was a liar. I’m not sure that this approach does him credit, or that it’s gone down well with the voters. The electorate is fickle, and it’s British. Fair play and courtesy are important matters, even today, and we just don’t like that stuff.

But the Conservatives’ real problem is that they were right behind the war, all along, maybe even more than Tony. Do you really think they’d have let George Bush go into battle without taking the opportunity to saddle up alongside ? No, and neither do they.

As for the Liberal Democrats, they’ve fought a reasonable if uninspiring campaign. They’ve stuck to their guns, and duly explained even the most unpopular of their tax-raising policies. And they always were against the war in Iraq. Their leader may not be the most dynamic, or the fittest of the candidates facing the ballot box this week, but he gave good account of himself in the TV debate on a Thursday night when the poise of an embattled Tony Blair began increasingly to drip away as surely and shiftily as Richard Nixon’s brow in a sauna.

The revelations from within the Blair administration are fascinating, revealing as they do the serious misgivings inside government in the run-up to war. But really, we knew that already. One of the Foreign Office’s top advisors, Elizabeth Wilmslow, resigned on the eve of invasion, tacitly citing the Attornery General’s spineless bending of legal opinions to blow with Tony Blair’s bluster. Interesting as they are, these leaks don’t really tell us anything we didn’t know two years ago.

But, late in an election campaign, can they still work as electoral dynamite ? The government’s attempt to defuse criticism has focused on a circular justification for war, via the non-compliance of Iraq with the key UN resolution (note that’s a singular). But central to the resolution was the requirement for Iraq to admit its possession of WMD, and to publicly dispose of them. This Iraq refused to do, thus ‘causing’ the war. But knowing what we know now, and what Hans Blix was trying to tell us then, why would Iraq admit to having what it didn’t have, or destroy what it didn’t have either ?

I’m no apologist for Saddam Hussein. But the case for war must be clearly defined and adhered to. That it wasn’t is no minor issue now, since Tony Blair insisted that it was.

I don’t like those Tory posters condemning Blair as a liar. They lower our politics to the level of a playground slanging match, on an issue where the Conservatives can’t claim any high ground. But what last week’s revelations did finally achieve is proof of that long-held suspicion, that Tony Blair did not tell the truth. Repeatedly, cynically, and misguidedly, he insisted on the veracity of ‘facts’, manipulating the British media coverage to an unprecedented extent in pursuit of his quest. And if there is a difference between not telling the truth, and being a liar, then it’s one which only politicians can know.

So how does this translate, on the ground ? In the Tory heartland of Stratford-upon-Avon there was nary a Labour, nor even LibDem, poster to be seen along my five mile run. Our neighbour there had a Conservative banner ripped from his hedge on Friday night, a level of political passion equating almost to the revolutionary in that neck of the woods. The prompt reappearance of even larger new placards beside a creepy notice proclaiming ‘Beware – You are being observed by CCTV‘ served perhaps to say more about the real ethics of the Conservatives than a hundred Michael Howard utterances. But Stratford will vote true blue, as it always has done.

Here in Guildford, it’s a thin yellow line keeping Sue Doughty, the Liberal Democrat MP, in her seat with a majority of just 500. The constituency turned from Tory, against the national swing in the last election thanks to tactical voting by the Labour few. Although she’s been a solid local campaigner since, she seems to lack conviction or public profile. And even as a keen environmentalist, I’ve got to say that proclaiming her attendance of the Rio Conference as the highlight of her term was almost bound to be misconstrued.

The Conservatives are fighting back, hard, sending in a hit squad from ‘Reichszentralle‘ Reigate to plant the highest number of placards to be seen in the southeast. My cycle ride became almost a slalom at times yesterday, dodging banners sprung up in front of the security gates and huge front gardens of all these woefully unhappy Range-Rover-owners-in-the-street. Our neighbours’ twinset of torches was likewise ripped down on Sunday, an uncanny coincidence which might lead even the most unsuspecting of readers to cry conspiracy, if only I hadn’t been elsewhere at the time (your Honour).

Whatever the opinion polls say, it still looks wide open to me. I’ve berated the lack of choice in this election, between an untrustworthy Labour government, an even more warmongering set of foreigner-bashing Conservatives, and a virtually wasted vote for the worthy but never-to-be-elected Liberal Democrats. That is the British electoral system for you.

But whatever its faults, this campaign has already succeeded where those million-strong London protests in 2003 so sadly failed. It has finally held our elected leader accountable, and for that firmly-administered kicking we can only be grateful.

And, despite all the pollsters’ indications, there may yet be more to come this Thursday.

Related articles:
15. Sorrowful hills – the Space Shuttle Disaster and war clouds in Iraq
71. How the West Was Won – Iraq implodes
148. Farewell to Tony Blair
95. Going underground – the 7/7 attacks on London
17. It’s puzzling – a letter on Iraq, to Tony Blair

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