Zero Five is monitoring press and web coverage of the UK election

Friday May 6

05.16 - Tony Blair arrives at Luton Airport and is whisked away in a motorcade of about twenty cars presumably at huge public expense to the National Portrait Gallery in London for what is officially described as “not a party”.

So, that’s ok then…if there’s no party we can probably all go to bed?

05.01 - Ed Matts, the Tory Photoshop expert, loses in Dorset South, Labour’s most marginal seat. Jim Knight increases his majority with a 1.7 per cent swing. The Lib Dems - on track for their best performance since 1923 - gain Cambridge with a signifciant swing from Labour’s Anne Campbell, incidentally the first MP to hold an online constituency surgery. The Tories took Northampton South from Labour.

As the prime minister presumably works on his impending cabinet reshuffle as he flies south, Friday morning’s papers are pretty scathing - “A kick in the ballots”, “Blandslide”, “Now make our lives better”.

04.42 - Boris Johnson holds Henley, one of the safest Tory seats in the country. Stanley, however, wasn’t able to become the first father to follow his son into parliament. The Tories have gained Milton Keynes and Gravesham from Labour, while the Lib Dems unseated Tory Tim Collins in Westmoreland. Somehow, the virtual Blair celebrating his victory on the BBC seems a little more animated than the real thing probably is right now.

04.33 - George Galloway defeats Oona King in Bethal Green and Bow by 823 votes. “Mr Blair - this is for Iraq. All the lies you have told have come back to haunt you and the best thing Labour can do is sack you tomorrow morning,” he said, launching an attack on the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, which is “in the grip of a corrupt political culture.” The returning officer, he said, should resign for presiding over a “shambles of an election”.

04.28 - Labour secures an historic third term, despite garnering a record low 36 per cent of the popular vote. And Bob Marshall Edwards is elected in Medway after all, despite his earlier protestations.

04.18 - Michael Howard is easily re-elected in Folkestone, his vote going up by 9 per cent, and almost doubling his majority. All that despite the Peace and Progress candidate polling 22 votes and the presence of Rodney Hylton-Potts, the winner of ITV’s “Vote For Me” show. “It looks from the way the national results are going that Mr Blair is going to win a third term. The time has now come for him to deliver on the things that really matter for our country, for action and not talk from him,” he said. Today, he said, “marks a significant step on the road to recovery for the Conservative party”. As he was speaking, Labour moved within two seats of securing the 324 seats needed to form the next government.

04.08 - The Lib Dems take Solihull with what looks like the highest turnout of the night, 83 per cent. Sarah Teather, who won Brent East in a 2003 by-election to become, at 29, the youngest member of the House of Commons, held onto her seat despite a strong challenge from left-wing Labour candidate Yasmin Quareshi, who would have been Britain’s first female muslim MP. In Windsor, Adam Afriye is elected to become the first black Tory MP, with a substantial majority.

03.50 - Robert Kilroy-Silk got just 6 per cent of the vote in Erewash and came close to losing his deposit. RU Serious, of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, who appeared on the platform with a placard reading “Say No To Pointless Placards”, lost his, but didn’t really care. The Tories finally win a seat in Scotland, taking Dumfriesshire.

03.28 - The Tories have gained Hammersmith and Fulham from Labour, and have taken Welwyn Hatfield from health minister Melanie Johnson.

03.06 - The Tories take Guildford from the Lib Dems with a majority of 347 in a turnout of 66 per cent. The turnout has generally been significantly higher in marginal seats, while the Lib Dems gained Leeds North West from Labour. Labour, meanwhile, has held on in Battersea, with a majority of just 163.

02.52 - Just when you thought one was probably enough, there’s apparently another Kilroy-Silk standing in Leicester South. Shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin fights off a challenge from the Lib Dems in Dorset West. On the BBC he resists the temptation to rise to Jeremy Paxman’s assertion that the Tories are doomed to “wander in the wilderness of opposition”.

02.44 - “Were you up for Stephen Twigg?” Portillo’s conqueror and the first minister to lose his seat tonight has been unseated by the Conservatives in Enfield Southgate with a turnout of 66 per cent and a swing in the order of 9 per cent. In London so far, there’s a 5 per cent swing overall to the Tories. Meanwhile, Labour press officers seem to be conceding Oona King’s defeat to George Galloway in Bethnal Green.

02.25 - The Lib Dems have gained Birmingham Yardley and Cardiff Central, both from Labour and both with a swing of 9 per cent, and possibly Manchester Wythenshaw. Continuing the south London factor, the Conservatives gain Wimbledon from Labour.

02.24 - Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, man of the people, is re-elected in his Sedgefield constituency, with an increased majority on 2001. Reg Keys, the father of a soldier killed in Iraq, got more than 4,000 votes. There were fifteen candidates in all. The representative of the Blair Must Go party got 143. “It’s clear that the British people wanted the return of a Labour government but with a reduced majority,” the prime minister said, “and we have to respond to that sensibly and wisely.” He said he knew that Iraq had been a “divisive issue” but hoped the country could now move forward. “Our job is to serve people”.

Reg Keys, meanwhile, in an emotional, moving speech, said he had to run for the memory of his son. “If this war had been justified by international law, I would have grieved and not campaigned. If weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, I would have grieved and not campaigned…I hope in my heart that one day the prime minister might say sorry.”

02.16 - Alastair Campbell, not this one, tells the BBC that the Conservatives are “flatlining”. Meanwhile Peter Law, the independent candidate who won Blaenau Gwent from Labour, said “This is what you get when you don’t listen to the people.” Also in Wales, the Lib Dems have gained Ceredigion from Plaid Cymru.

02.06 - Talk of a recount at Islington South.

01.56 - Labour has just held Hove by 400-odd votes from the Tories with a turnout of 64 per cent. And so much for the Lib Dems’ “decapitation” strategy - Theresa May holds Maidenhead with an amazing 72 per cent turnout. Must be the shoes.

01.48 - Kenny Baer, guest blogging on Talking Points Memo, says, fairly, “Brits are obsessed by swing”. But the problem with extrapolating is that swing is dependent on many local factors and probably doesn’t mean a great deal across the country. But one of the biggest swings of the night so far has been to the Lib Dems in Hornsey and Wood Green, where Barbara Roche has been ousted, overturning a 10,000 majority. The Workers Revolutionary Party candidate just got 34 votes in Birmingham Northfield. Probably a swing of his entire family.

01.34 - The Conservatives have gained Newbury from the Lib Dems. With just over a hundred results in, Sky News now forecasts a Labour majority of 80 seats.

01.31 - Alan Milburn says he doesn’t want to remain in the government, and that he has told Tony Blair that he won’t serve in the cabinet in a third Labour term. He tells Sky News that Blair “persuaded me with my arm up my back” to run the election campaign.

01.27 - The Conservatives have gained Peterborough, Brian Mawhinney’s old seat.

01.20 - The Torbay result leads to much talk of “tactical unwind”. There’s a recount in Manchester Wythenshaw. Further indications that George Galloway may be ahead in Bethnal Green and Bow. Labour’s Oona King, defending a majority of over 10,000, hasn’t yet shown up at the count. The SNP has gained the Western Isles from Labour’s Calum MacDonald.

01.07 - Alan Milburn re-elected In Darlington, while the Lib Dems hold onto Torbay. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw holds onto his seat with a reduced majority in Blackburn, the constituency with the third-highest number of muslim voters in the country. The Labour vote was squeezed in several directions, with a significant shift to the Lib Dems, and the British National Party polling over 2,000 votes. Turnout was 57 per cent. Robin Cook also holds his seat.

01.03 - Chancellor Gordon Brown wins the re-organised seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, the first Labour candidate to increase his vote. Brown - not this one - says his mandate is a call to “renewed commitment”. Turnout was 58 per cent. The Lib Dems say they may have won Birmingham Yardley.

01.01 - There’s a recount in Battersea, the seat held for Labour with a majority of roughly 5,000 by former Guardian journalist Martin Linton (proudest achivement since being elected? “Running the marathon”); and next door to Putney, in the Wandsworth council area. Reports are that there are less than a hundred votes in it. Trend shows Labour well down - between 8 and 9 per cent - across London.

00.59 - The Scottish Nationalists hold Angus, while Labour keeps Midlothian. The Tories have yet to get on the board north of the border.

00.57 - John Prescott is re-elected in Hull East, despite a 6 per cent swing to the Lib Dems. “What’s most important is that it’s a third term for Labour,” he says. David Blunkett also gets back in for Sheffield.

00.52 - Labour has conceded the safest seat in Wales, Blaenau Gwent, the former constituency of Michael Foot and Nye Bevan, which looks like being won by an independent over the issue of Labour imposing an all-women selection shortlist. Meanwhile, maverick Labour MP Bob Marshall Andrews says he thinks he has lost Medway, and that Tony Blair is to blame. But he admits: “I’m sure that on a bad night for him (the prime minister) my going will cheer him up.”

00.33 - The Tories make their first gain, recapturing David Mellor’s old seat of Putney, with 35-year-old Justine Greening taking the seat with a 6 per cent swing from Labour. Tessa Jowell says Putney - the first real Labour-Tory head-to-head contest - showed the “differential effect” in marginals, that trends in those sorts of seats can’t be generalised out to the rest of the country.

00.29 - Labour’s Work and Pensions secretary Alan Johnson holds Hull West and Hessle despite a swing to the Lib Dems of 5 per cent. There’s also swings to the Lib Dems in the safe Labour seats of Rotherham, and Vauxhall in south London, with Dennis McShane and Kate Hoey respectively holding their seats. All three turnouts just under 50 per cent.

00.17 - Labour holds Barnsley Central, with a reduced majority. Swing shows Labour to Tories of about 4 per cent, while Lib Dems also have an increased share. Oona King reportedly “looking worried” in Bethnal Green, with George Galloway now apparently ahead.

The BBC is doing something very, very strange and potentially chaotic with spray paint in Gateshead…

00.14 - Former Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook tells the BBC that even in his own constituency he had people “coming up and saying that they couldn’t vote for me because of the war. I had to convince them that I was also against the war…”

00.08 - The Lib Dems are claiming to have defeated Barbara Roche in the north London seat of Hornsey and Wood Green, while some of the blogs have the Lib Dems also winning Cardiff Central. All of which reinforces Menzies Campbell’s assrtion that the party is “going like a bomb” in its target seats.

00.00 - Happy Birthday…,

Thursday May 5

23.56 - The first Scottish constituency declares, with Tommy McAvoy holding Rutherglen and Hamilton West, ahead of the Lib Dems and Scot Nats, a swing from Labour to the Lib Dems of about 5 per cent.

23.34 - BBC reports that Enfield Southgate, the seat that gave the world the iconic moment when Labour’s Stephen Twigg ousted former Tory minister Michael Portillo, is “too close to call”, while BBC London is apparently reporting a fight at the count in Romford. No…really?

23.31 - Fraser Kemp holds Houghton & Washington East for Labour. Another safe seat. Turnout 52 per cent. Again, Labour down about 9 per cent, Lib Dems up 6 per cent on 2001; a swing from Labour to Lib Dems of about 7 per cent.

23.26 - Sunderland North is held by Labour, with a swing to the Tories of about 5 per cent. Bill Etherington’s vote is reduced by about 8 per cent.

23.24 - The BBC reports that voters waiting to vote in Norfolk were being turned away when the polls closed at 10pm. If that’s true, this guy will doubtless have something to say about it.

23.08 - Andrew Marr tells the BBC “there’s a rumour that things are tight in Cleethorpes”…Nice one on the Deadbrain blog.

22.59 - Chris Mullin tells Sky - repeatedly - that the “important thing to remember is that there will be a Labour government in the morning”, dismissing the “small swings” away from him to both the Tories and Lib Dems, as well as the British National Party securing more than a thousand votes, roughly doubling its vote from 2001.

22.44 - Sunderland South, as expected, wins the race to be the first constituency to declare, returning Labour’s Chris Mullin with a slightly reduced majority. “We’ve demonstrated it’s possible to win elections by appealing to the best, rather than the basest instincts,” he says. Turnout was 49 per cent, fractionally higher than last time.

22.24 - Liam Fox, the deputy Tory leader, tells Sky News there won’t be a “uniform national swing” and that there will be “some surprises” in key marginals, but he says if Michael Howard is in Downing Street tomorrow, it would be “one of the greatest shocks in British politics”. He also plays down the role of immigration and says “the voters will decide” whether the strategy of calling Tony Blair a liar was the right one. But he also points out that in 1992, the exit polls inidcated a victory for Neil Kinnock.

22.12 - Lynton Crosby, the Tory campaign manager, predicts the party will gain between 40 and 50 seats. Even at the top end of that expectation, that statement effectively constitutes a concession. Labour’s Margaret Beckett tells the BBC she has a “horrible feeling” that immigration has helped the Conservative cause.

22.00 - Polls close. BBC and ITV’s NOP/Mori exit poll of 19,800 voters at 120 polling stations forecasts a Labour majority of 66 seats, down from a 2001 majority of 165, with the percentage split Labour 37, Conservative 33, Lib Dems 22. That would indicate a House of Commons made up of 356 Labour MPs, 209 Conservatives, 53 Lib Dems and 28 other parties, but of course, exit polls are not able to factor in the much-increased numbers of postal votes.

Wednesday May 4

Frantic campaigning on the final full day, with an apparently confident Labour nevertheless continuing the “Don’t risk a Tory government” line.

All three parties, in fact, seem to be more concerned with why voters shouldn’t vote for the other two than being positive about their own ambitions.

Amid rumblings of discontent within their party, the latest poll in The Times shows the Conservatives in a “worse position than before their record defeats in 1997 and 2001”.

The Populus poll has the Tories on 27 per cent, with Labour on 41 per cent and the Lib Dems up 2 points on 23 per cent, their highest level of the campaign.

Yet, here’s something to think about. It may just be that - like in the 1992 election, when no-one polled would own up to intending to vote Tory - this time around no-one will admit to voting for either the Conservatives or Labour. If that’s the case, then the Lib Dems support might be artificially high.

Elsewhere in The Times, meanwhile, Simon Jenkins, says that if Labour wins, it will represent a “seventh victory in a row for Margaret Thatcher.”

Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, continuing his guest slot for The Guardian, praises the prime minister’s final morning press conference.

OK, so the Sky News “interest index” hasn’t been in positive territory once, but deep down, has the campaign really all been that boring?

And, ominously, with an estimated 6.5m postal votes expected to be cast, the shadow cast by potential fraud is potentially a long one; another arrest this morning probably does nothing to make anyone feel better.

Tuesday May 3

Forty-eight hours to go. The widow of the 87th and latest British serviceman to be killed in Iraq ensures that the issue stays in the spotlight by directly blaming Tony Blair for her husband’s death.

Coming in the wake of the move by several other bereaved families to take legal action against the prime minister, both stories are set to keep Iraq on the front burner.

With the final Mori poll of the campaign for the FT showing Labour with a comfortable lead, Mr Blair himself has returned to his theme of heading off a Lib Dem protest vote, saying:

”There are three ways to get a Tory MP. One is to vote Tory, one is to stay home, one is to vote Liberal Democrat. Take nothing for granted. Unless people come out and vote Labour, it is a Tory government they will wake up to on May 6.”

The message dovetailing nicely there, with Labour’s latest poster campaign showing a sleeping Michael Howard, ready to wake on May 6th ready to wreak who-knows-what kind of havoc….

The Tory leader, meanwhile, sidestepped both Labour’s continuing poll lead, and what seems to be the growing dissatisfaction within Tory ranks over his leadership.

And how do voters know they can trust him? Because he ordered the party battlebus off the road on finding out that it’s tax disc was out of date.

But you have to wonder if he’d trade a few thousand of his majority for a last-minute penalty here later…

Bookies Ladbrokes reports that, despite Labour still being 1/33 to win the most seats, (and Liverpool 15/8 to beat Chelsea) it has taken a £10,000 bet on the Tories to win the election at 10/1.

The appeal ruling in the Birmingham postal vote fraud case is expected today, while there’s always these guys or these guys.

Finally, for tonight’s distractions, this is pretty good.

Monday May 2

Once again, the war took centre stage in the campaign as a British serviceman was killed in Iraq, and there was continuing fallout from the various leaked documents relating to the government’s conduct.

With Labour stepping up its rhetoric over the need for its traditional supporters to turn out (the latest poster says “If one in 10 Labour voters don’t vote, the Tories win”), and that a vote for the Lib Dems is the same as voting Conservative, the scene seems set for an increasingly desperate, personal round of back-and-forth over the final three days.

Charles Kennedy introduced former Labour supporter Greg Dyke - the ex-Director General of the BBC - at the Lib Dems’ morning presser, pointing to the fact that the Iraq war had cost Dyke his job, while the prime minister carried on regardless.

According to, appropriately, the BBC, Mr Dyke said it was now clear that Mr Blair and his Downing Street staff ”did the same to the legal advice on the war in Iraq as they did to the intelligence”.

He also compared the Blair administration to the Nixon White House.

Someone else drawing transatlantic comparisons is Markos Moulitsas, who writes the popular Daily Kos blog in the US. Guest blogging for The Guardian , he looks at some similarities and differences between campaigning in the two systems. (They like flags a lot more. Everyone likes U2)

Meanwhile, the prime minister, it seems, has won at least one hard-fought diplomatic endorsement.

If the folks at get their way, he will eventually wind up with plenty of time to explore the lucrative delights of the international lecture circuit.

Friday April 29

Among the few distinct things to come out of last night’s Question Time appearances by the three party leaders were that Charles Kennedy hasn’t worked out whether or not British troops would stay in Iraq if the UN asked them to; that no matter what Michael Howard says, asylum seekers will always think he is “evil”, and that Tony Blair isn’t quite sure how the system for booking an appointment with a GP works.

Maybe none of that matters, though. (note to the BBC - it wasn’t a “debate”. Please stop calling it that.)

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there was an announcement on Friday on, er, the procedure for GP appointments

Talking of The Times, the thunderer had a headline this morning saying “Blair anoints Brown as the next Premier”. Which would have been fine had it not been for the story inside which, despite having a headline of its own that said: ”It’s friends reunited as Blair endorses Brown”, quotes the prime minister thus:

”A week from a general election, I have a natural reluctance to end up with great headlines about who will be the next prime minister when the country has not even decided it wants me to remain prime minister.”

So that’s all cleared up, then.

The paper also has a front page picture story of Baroness Thatcher flying out to Venice for a holiday, saying that it will be the “first time in 70 years” that she has not been involved in an election campaign. The nine-year old Margaret Roberts was quite an asset on the stump, apparently.

Fear not. She will be back before May 5.

The latest Populus survey puts Labour on 40 per cent for the third day running. The Tories were up one point at 32 and the Lib Dems were unchanged at 21. The poll was taken before Thursday night’s Question Time.

Given the general lack of public interest in the election campaign, (see above re Footballers’ Wives) not sure how attractive the latest exhibit at Madame Tussauds will prove. According to the blurb, the “Kings of Spin” attraction features ”a bona fide lie detector, Blair’s pal George Bush and various other politicians. Guests get the opportunity to be wired up to the lie detector and grilled on a series of questions to see if they can “spin” like a politician.”

With the boos ringing in his ears from last night’s appearance, there’s still more discussion on the prime minister’s recent ”boo v boom” throwdown with the south London schoolkids.

Now, thanks to the BBC you can decide for yourself….

Not so happy broadcast chappies over at Channel Four, which apologised to the Green Party after its Party Election Broadcast ran for three of its five minutes with subtitles meant for the UK Independence Party. The Greens, who are entitled to only one broadcast, are taking legal advice on whether the broadcast can be re-shown. UKIP, predictably, are “delighted”.

Thursday April 28

The prime minister’s rationale as he allowed the publication of the full legal advice on the Iraq war from the attorney general? ‘Everyone’s pretty much seen it all anyway’, calling it more a ‘damp squib than a smoking gun’.

The Guardian’s web story on the release, probably appropriately, occasionally featured a pop-up ad for Persil, with a splodge marked with the catchphrase “It’s not dirt…”.

It also seems, according to the paper, that families of British soldiers killed in Iraq are preparing a legal case against the PM.

And, just a reminder…

Yet, as Bob Worcester of Mori said on Sky News this evening, despite the furore and doom-laden headlines for the prime minister this morning - specifically about the trust issue - Iraq remains “14th” on the list of concerns among voters; while the implausibility of any revelation having an impact on the end result of the election is borne out by bookmakers Paddy Power , who are already paying out on straight “Labour to Win” bets.

James Blitz in the FT agrees that while the timing may be difficult, and the story will rattle around for a few days, the electoral impact will probably be minimal.

The three main party leaders are due to appear together on the BBC’s Question Time this evening - not quite a debate, but at least an opportunity for them to “interact with a live studio audience”, if not directly with each other.

Probably as well, then, that Michael Howard didn’t take the opportunity today to repeat his previous accusation - described by Melanie Phillips as “inept, opportunistic and squalid” that the prime minister had lied over Iraq, while Charles Kennedy just stuck with the “misleading” line of attack.

No chance, one would assume, of either of them echoing Richard Gott’s buzzworthy assertion in The Guardian the other day that the PM may actually be, in fact, a war criminal.

Wednesday April 27

The leak of documents indicating that the government’s advice on the legality of the war in Iraq makes an evening exclusive in The Guardian.

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, according to the paper, “warned that while he could be able to argue a “reasonable case” in favour of military action, he was far from confident a court would agree.

Indeed, he added, a court ‘might well conclude’ that war would be found unlawful without a further UN resolution.”

The Independent, meanwhile, suggests that Number 10 sought to limit the paper trail from the affair, quoting Lib Dem peer Lord Lester as saying it constituted “a cover-up in the interests of political expediency.”

The personal nature of the contest continued, while a new Mori poll for the Financial Times, among people who say they are certain to vote, suggests that Labour’s overall lead has narrowed, with the party on 36 per cent, two points ahead of the Conservatives, with the Lib Dems on 23 per cent.

Meanwhile, the prime minister, apparently dodged divine retribution today.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear

Tuesday April 26

The Independent had the defection of Brian Sedgemore (which would, of course, have been a much bigger deal if he was actually staying on as an MP) as a scoop this morning, quoting from the veteran Labour member’s letter to the paper:

”I voted against the war on Iraq and it becomes clearer every day that Blair decided to go to war after meeting Bush on his Texas ranch in 2002. After that, he lied to persuade the country to support him.

“The stomach-turning lies on Iraq were followed by the attempt to use the politics of fear to drive through Parliament a deeply authoritarian set of law-and-order measures that reminded me of the Star Chamber.”

The paper also reports that Sedgemore believes a “small group of unnamed fellow MPs who are standing down are secretly planning to leave the Labour Party in protest at Mr Blair’s leadership after the election”.

There is much speculation as to who that might be.

An NOP poll for The Indy put Labour on 40 per cent, up three points on last week, with the Conservatives down two points on 30 per cent and the Liberal Democrats unchanged on 21 per cent.

The Lib Dems made much of their capture of one of old Labour’s last castles, with his wonderful soundbite urging voters to “give Tony Blair a bloody nose”.

But the prime minister shrugged off the attack, telling the Guardian:

”I’ve come to the conclusion that for those people who are opposed to the war, the more I put my point of view, the more it simply irritates them.”

Blair also played down Michael Howard’s recent comment that the Tories were ”two goals down at half-time”, something that Mr Howard’s beloved Liverpool could find themselves tomorrow night.

And, while we all know the Labour press machine is pretty slick, this seems a bit rich

Deputy prime minister John Prescott had some unexpected visitors in the early hours.

Gordon Brown, meanwhile, claimed the economic mantle of, er.. Margaret Thatcher?

The opposition’s latest anti-Blair billboard says: “If he’s prepared to lie to take us to war, he’s prepared to lie to win an election”. The Tories, of course, supported the war.

Finally, I suppose this was only a matter of time…but it’s not quite as bad as this.

Monday April 25

The Independent has two stories related to the war in Iraq - the issue that wasn’t, but suddenly might be again. The first reopens the row over the legal advice given to the government over its decision to go to war, and explains how that has coincided with Michael Howard’s increasing desperation and resulting personal attacks on Tony Blair.

The other story profiles the media attention generated by Reg Keys, the father of a British soldier killed in Iraq, who is standing against the prime minister in his own constituency.

”I believe Tony Blair has blood on his hands for those who died in Iraq, British soldiers and the people of Iraq,” he says. “My son was betrayed. I countersigned his application because he was under 18, he went to war proudly because he believed what our country’s leader told him. If he was killed by WMD, I wouldn’t be here. But now we know, of course, that Blair lied,” Mr Keys says.

The paper points out that of the record 155 candidates standing as independents at this election, many are using the war as their focal point.

Charles Kennedy, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to urge voters to ”punish both parties” for their support for the war.

The prime minister himself, however, remains unshakeable on the subject, saying that his opponents are using Iraq as a campaign issue because they have ”nothing serious to say about the issues facing our country for the future”.

This week’s Economist looks at some books which may or may not help make sense of the election, while if you’re in too much of a hurry to read anything that weighty, then just check the excellent Blog Roundups.

What on earth was the BBC thinking?

Finally, hot on the heels of thoughts of the Tory leader’s wife, which have created quite an online buzz, comes not the Tory leader himself.

(Actually, I just did a Google search for “Michael Howard” and “Blog” and this came up. Am still debating whether this guy might actually make a better candidate, and whether the real Michael Howard is actually Wally from “Dilbert”…)

Meanwhile, there’s a “genuine proxy” Howard blog here…

And, among the best spoof election posters today….

Friday April 22

Tony Blair tried today to take on the Tories on the single issue where opinion polls put the opposition significantly and consistently ahead - immigration.

In Dover, the prime minister promised another 600 border guards, an Australian-type points system to filter applicants for entry into the UK, and rounded on the Tories for building their campaign around “one issue”.

He said: ”Their campaign is based on the statement that it isn’t racist to talk about immigration. I know of no senior politician who has ever said it was.

“So why do they put it like that? It is an attempt deliberately to exploit people’s fears, to suggest that for reasons of political correctness, those in power don’t dare deal with the issue - so that the public is left with the impression that they are being silenced in their concerns, that we are blindly ignoring them or telling them that to raise the issue is racist, when actually the opposite is true.”

A survey for The Independent seems to suggest that Tory candidates are certainly playing up the issue, while the paper also reports that the British National Party is fielding four times as many candidates next month - a total of 118 - than it did at the 2001 election.

On the day when data indicated that the UK economy slowed in the first quarter, leading analysts predicted that tax rises would likely be inevitable regardless of which party won the election. Michael Howard said he was “unable to rule out” tax rises at some point in the future.

He told Jeremy Paxman: ”…if you’re asking me what I’ll be able to do three or four years out, then in truth, although we’ve spelled out our plans, although our plans don’t need us to increase taxes at all, I can’t foresee exactly what the position is going to be in three or four years time. There may be unforeseen events.”

Thursday April 21

At last! The Sun makes a decision and a passing driver from Romford is suitably impressed.

Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin put forward their proposals for raising the threshold on stamp duty, a move that seems, um, egalitarian, at least in some patrician way, but is probably more likely a benefit to homeowners than homebuyers.

Labour, meanwhile, was talking law and order, while, - conveniently - the latest British Crime Survey figures were released; but of course there are always two sides.

Steve Richards in The Independent has an interesting interview with the prime minister where he speaks frankly about the trust issue and - in an almost Nixonesque exchange - where he thinks the blame lies:

”My frank assessment is that they were always going to say one of two things about me. The hope of the right wing was that New Labour would turn out to be old Labour, that we would mess up the economy and would not be strong on defence and therefore they could say that we came in as New Labour and turned into old Labour. If they weren’t able to say that, I always knew they would go for my character. In 2001, they were calling me a liar and a cheat and that was before Iraq. The right wing plays this politics in a very heavy way.”

Robert Shrimsley in the FT follows up the PM’s grilling (as opposed to, er, stuffing) by Paxo the other night, with a look at the continued relevance of the traditional political encounter.

He writes:

”Broadcast interviews have become all about headlines. But the point of a lengthy interview is not to win plaudits from the tabloids but to offer the viewer a rounded picture of what the subject believes. Are these interviews about broadening our understanding or are they just about tripping the politicians up? Opinion polls suggest public services and the economy are the big issues in this election; yet the interview was dominated by Iraq and immigration.”

Guido Fawkes has an item on the Alexa rankings, showing the Tories’ official website leading the traffic rankings of the three major parties, ahead of Labour and the Lib Dems.

Sandra Howard - Blogger extraordinaire!

Wednesday April 20

So, Michael Howard has denounced the council tax, which of course he helped introduce…

While a Tory candidate is being investigated for the wording of some of his campaign literature.

In a pre-taped interview, meanwhile, the prime minister has again defended his decision to go to war in Iraq.

”If you want me to apologise for the war in Iraq, I’m afraid I cannot say that I’m sorry we removed Saddam Hussein,” he said, predictably.

To put everything else in some kind of perspective today though, this sounds like a simply harrowing experience for George Galloway. It’s not clear if the rentamob knew - or even cared - who it was they were terrorising.

But somehow, a line like ’Voting for any political party will guarantee a seat in hellfire forever’ and associated physical threats put the abuse candidates might suffer on the doorstep into perspective.

On a lighter note (or, er, a lightsabre note), when the election’s all done and dusted there’s always this to look forward to…

Tuesday April 19

Rupert Murdoch’s speech aligning himself with Labour’s position on immigration has led to the assumption that The Currant Bun will eventually endorse the government.

A far cry from this, or even this…

Michael Howard, meanwhile, has been standing firm on his position on the immigration issue, denying that senior Tories had put pressure on him to tone done the rhetoric for fear of alienating voters - particularly following the angry reaction of a questioner on live television.

As speculation continues over the structure of any deal on a “transition of power” between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, what is thought to be the site of the original deal between the two, the Granita restaurant in Islington has reopened, after a brief refurbishment, as a Tex-Mex establishment called Desperados…

An NOP poll for The Independent shows that Mr Brown “would lead Labour to a majority of 234”.

The paper reports:

NOP’s findings call into question a claim often made by the Blair camp - that Mr Brown would have less appeal to non-Labour voters than Mr Blair. Some 36 per cent of Tory supporters trust the Chancellor to keep his promises, while only 7 per cent trust the Prime Minister. Among Liberal Democrats, 50 per cent trust Mr Brown and 8 per cent Mr Blair.

Mr Blair’s “trust problem” appears greatest amongst the top AB group, who are three times more likely to believe Mr Brown than him.

The trust issue as it relates to the war in Iraq is what is driving Reg Keys, who lost his son in the conflict, to stand against the prime minister in his Sedgefield constituency, while Martin Samuel writes in The Times that the campaign has become the “Basil Fawlty election”, with everyone trying not to mention the war.

He writes:

”As it stands, there is a very real danger that we will re-elect a prime minister who has overseen the most fundamental change in foreign policy since the dissolution of the Empire, without forcing a proper debate of his beliefs. Wherever one stands on the subject of the war, this is unhealthy.”

Monday April 18

The Guardian finds that press and broadcasting coverage of the campaign thus far is down compared with the 2001 contest as “party strategists struggle to engage the electorate.”

The paper also reports that: ”Labour’s insistence that the election would be fought on domestic issues and that Iraq would lessen in importance also appears to be borne out by the figures.”

The parties themselves, meanwhile, continue to trade claims over health and pensions.

For its part, The Independent lays out why climate change and the environment should be at the forefront of the campaign.

Plaid Cymru launched their manifesto, promising “a better Wales for everybody”, even people who don’t live there.

Its candidates will, the party says, continue to call for the impeachment of the prime minister over the war in Iraq.

For Mr Blair himself, according to the International Herald Tribune, the Iraq issue, which would supposedly cost [him] great slabs of credibility ”looks limited as a practical what the British press used to call the chattering classes, and now refers to as the “shiraz quaffers” and their “bruschetta orthodoxies”.

Only in columns about Jamie Oliver, probably….

Another distraction for former Labour MP and Respect coalition candidate George Galloway, after the Daily Telegraph won the right to appeal against Mr Galloway’s £150,000 libel award against the paper.

Some interesting results from the “Who Should You Vote For” online vote profiler here.

One of the site’s organisers says: ”..People’s perceptions of themselves as Labour voters are wrong - Labour is no longer the party of the left. It’s taken the centre ground and the Lib Dems have taken the left wing.”

The Irish justice minister insisted that his campaigning for an SDLP candidate in the UK general election is “in a personal capacity”.

So that’s OK, then.

And finally - fancy having a go designing your own Tory poster? Well, now you can…

Sunday April 17

The latest YouGov poll for the Sunday Times has Labour over Tories 36-35.

Yet, ICM in The Sunday Telegraph is more emphatic, putting Labour on 40 per cent, the Tories on 30 per cent.

While that 10 point gap is the widest since the formal start to the election campaign, overall the spreads in opinion polls have not really indicated any dramatic swings or anomalies. As YouGov’s Peter Kellner said on BBC’s Breakfast With Frost, all the polls his organisation has done have showed both major parties within a consistent range plus or minus one or two points.

Still, Ladbrokes reports that odds on the election outcome “have changed for the first time in two months”. Labour have been cut to 1/20 from 1/16, while the Conservatives drift from 7/1 to 15/2. Bookies are apparently also seeing plenty of money for turnout above 60 per cent, at odds of 2/5.

The Independent On Sunday has a story outlining the details of Tony Blair’s plan to hand over power to Gordon Brown, with Alastair Campbell - mooted as a possible sports minister after the election - acting as the go-between to ensure a smooth transition.

(And talking of Alastair, this isn’t, of course, him - we’re fairly sure…)

A poll for the Indy shows Labour with a six-point lead over the Tories, but indicates that the lead would be 14 points if the chancellor were Labour leader.

Interestingly, also, more than a quarter of Lib Dem voters say they would switch to Labour if Mr Brown were in charge, indicating the degree of Mr Blair’s personal responsibility for his party’s disenchanted supporters.

Meanwhile, Michael Howard offered more details of the Conservatives’ plans for tax and pensions, while The Sunday Times also raises discontent within ministerial ranks over the use of not-yet-elected Ed Balls to front the government’s response in the absence of the chancellor.

Talking of Eds, John Naughton in The Observer has a nice piece on the dangers of photo-shopping, post-Matts. He warns: ”The adage that ‘the camera never lies’ has been comprehensively undermined. Better to assume from now on that it never tells the truth.”

Finally, is a Labour minister really advocating tactical voting?

Friday April 15

Labour’s latest target is “school gate mums”, and Gordon Brown actually went to meet some.

As Jean Eaglesham writes in the FT: ”The first walkout came before Mr Brown had reached the fifth page of his 14 page peroration, as one toddler headed for the exit.”

The strategy to appeal to the personification of a crucial, but shifting section of the electorate is reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s specific appeal to “soccer moms”, and subsequently George W Bush’s skilful tying together of the issues of family values and national security in the embodiment of the “security moms”.

One wonders, however, what might be the British equivalent of Bush’s other, complementary, demographic, the “Nascar Dads”.

“Premiership punters” anyone?

The Tories concentrated on the issues of tax and pensions, with Michael Howard accusing Labour of breaking promises to the elderly and of “airbrushing pensioners out” of society.

In case anyone, politician or otherwise, was in any doubt of the debt owed to that generation, today was the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp by British troops.

And talking of the armed forces, on the heels of the postal voting scandals, comes this story in The Independent about how an administrative error by the MoD has jeopardised the votes of “tens of thousands” of service personnel.

Opposition parties will argue, of course, that the government may be keen to minimise any dissent among troops dissatisfied with either the war in Iraq or the potential streamlining of the Scottish regiments.

One serving officer tells the Indy: ”The Iraqis we were living with, and training, have been able to get out and vote. But it seems an afterthought that we should be able to vote. It’s absolutely shocking.”

The latest Sky News/YouGov poll features an election “interest index” which currently stands at 61 per cent for ‘Boring’, 36 per cent for ‘Interesting’

It also, er, interestingly, showed that immigration is now the top issue on which those polled will make their decision. The results came on the same day that UKIP launched its manifesto under, as The Times reports, the even-handed message: “We Want Our Country Back”.

Sky News also used YouGov’s “Smileometer” to monitor - appropriately - the Tories’ latest cinema ad aimed at their ever-present target: Mr Blair’s smirk.

And, finally, was it remotely possible for Jeremy Paxman to look any more disinterested in what Frank Luntz had to say on Newsnight last night?

Thursday April 14

The Lib Dems finally launched their manifesto, even if Charles Kennedy was momentarily thrown by a question on the party’s planned replacement for the council tax.

Poor man. His head is probably full of these.

As Robert Shrimsley writes in the FT:

It is a public fact that bookmakers are offering the same odds on Charles Kennedy’s newborn son becoming prime minister as they are on him achieving that goal. This seems grossly unfair. The lad is only a few days old and already he’s being written off.

Veritas, Robert Kilroy-Silk’s “straight talking” but still more of a dinner party than a popular party, also launched its manifesto, with immigration policy at its heart.

According to the former chat show host:

”No one went to the electorate and asked them…nobody voted for multiculturalism. It is something that has been imposed on them by the liberal fascists in London. It’s not what people want.”

Despite ministerial assurances that the issue will be tackled after the election, the row over potential fraud in postal voting simmers on, with two parties - including George Galloway’s RESPECT coalition - threatening legal challenges, according to The Times.

Round the government’s comfy sofa, meanwhile, it seems the buzzphrase among Brownites is ”unity in transition”, while the Tories will doubtless be gleeful that Alan Milburn apologised for the death of PC Stephen Oake, who was murdered two years ago by ricin plotter and bogus asylum seeker Kamel Bourgass.

As Philip Johnston writes in The Telegraph:

here is no more incendiary issue in the election campaign than what to do about immigration and asylum.

and it is indeed sad that an issue of such fundamental social importance should become a political football.

Finally, for a much-needed entertaining flavour of life on the campaign trail from a candidate’s eye-view, take a look at Stanley (”Is it true Boris is your father?”) Johnson’s blog on the Channel 4 News site.

Wednesday April 13

Labour’s much-awaited manifesto launch saw the prime minister and most of the cabinet onstage together waving little red books bearing the title ”Britain for war”, sorry, “Britain forward not back”.

It was almost as if we were watching some archive footage from a party rally in pre-revolutionary eastern bloc state, or, as Jenny Booth writes in The Times, the morning gathering at an exclusive educational establishment.

Seven school prefects stood at the front, and launched into a well-drilled recital of Labour’s achievements. One voice followed another in a monotonous chorus like a dreary presentation at assembly. Nobody smiled, with the exception of a few smirks from Ruth Kelly, the youthful Education Secretary, who looked rather smug at being in the top team.

The launch of Mr Blair’s - apparently - final manifesto as party leader immediately reopened arguments about what exactly constitutes a “full term” and what may be the substance of any deal with Gordon Brown.

The chancellor, meanwhile, was continuing the attack over Conservative tax plans, after Tory confusion over whether or tax cuts promised in their own manifesto would actually be implemented immediately.

Michael Howard himself was highlighting how difficult it was to get a good tradesman these days. Elsewhere, Charles Kennedy, the NHS’s latest satisfied customer, is expected back on the campaign trail on Thursday, with the delayed launch of the Lib Dems’ manifesto - the only one of the three major parties to have their leader’s picture on the cover - relieving Menzies Campbell from encounters with persistent elderly voters.

The party’s first election broadcast concentrated on their recent by-election successes and stressed their growing support among disenchanted Labour supporters. Audience figures, from earlier in the week, meanwhile, indicate that the first Tory broadcast drew more viewers than Anthony Minghella’s Blair-Brown piece.

Tuesday April 12

The Ed Matts’ amateur photoshopping row - or rather, more of a kerfuffle - led to The Guardian asking its readers “Can You Do Better?

Early indications are that, yes, they can.

The haste with which John Reid sought to connect today’s incident to the recent untidy political demise of Howard Flight is probably more indicative of the narrowness of Labour’ s majority - 153 - in the Dorset South seat than to any serious expectation of accountability at the top of the Tory party.

But you can’t really blame the government’s attack dog for trying, even if in this instance he’s more of a Pointer.

The Green Party launched its manifesto, promising to phase out VAT and abolish Britain’s ”weapons of mass destruction”. Its members will undoubtedly be interested in Prof Philip Stott’s piece on energy generation in The Times

The party is targeting five constituencies and feels it has a good chance of picking up disenchanted Labour voters.

According to former foreign secretary Robin Cook, Gordon Brown will take over from Tony Blair as PM ”sooner rather than later”.

Perhaps this blog is just being over-sensitive, but it wonders if Andrew Billen in The Times maybe thought about an alternative intro to his piece on Trevor Philips and immigration?

He writes:

The trouble with elections, says Trevor Phillips, the Commission for Racial Equality’s chairman, is that they prevent people from talking like human beings. Perhaps it is as well, then, that our first encounter is back in February, when the election is merely a black cloud on the horizon.

Meanwhile, a poll for Cosmopolitan magazine shows that more than a third of women aged 25 to 34 (36%) - and 43% of 18 to 24-year-olds - who intend to vote have not yet made up their minds which party to support.

Monday April 11

The Tories launched their ”Battle for Britain” manifesto, which addresses, Michael Howard said, “the simple longing of the British people”.

Whether these are the same ”hard-working people/families” that all three parties seem to tie their every statement around isn’t entirely clear. Nor is it certain that if you aren’t particularly hard-working, your vote might not count as much.

In his speech, the always reasonable Mr Howard said a vote for Labour would be “a vote for higher taxes, more immigration and softer sentences for murderers and rapists”. Worse than that, though, it would mean five more years of Mr Blair’s “smirking”….

The Daily Express is in no doubt that “ruthless” Michael Howard is “the man to lead Britain”. This editorial opinion, of course, sits alongside the hard-hitting investigation: “Deodorants - How safe is yours?”. Don’t worry, if the aerosols don’t get you the gypsies will.

This, meanwhile, is very funny. (Hat tip to Iain Dale).

Labour ruled out any legislative reform of the pensions system to require compulsory saving - at least in the next parliament.

The government also said it would act to make postal voting more secure, but only after the election.

The Telegraph takes them to task:

..Would the government have been so relaxed about fraud if the beneficiaries had been the Tories or the Lib-Dems?

Or consider another question: is it likely that the industrial levels of vote-rigging that have been exposed in Labour Birmingham would have taken place in, say, Tory Sussex?

If you are still in doubt, ponder one question more: why did Labour explicitly overrule the Electoral Commission and the House of Lords to hold postal ballots for the 2004 local and European elections in its own heartland regions?

Labour’s cavalier response to these questions is proof, if proof were needed, of how arrogant that party has become in office..

And if you missed it you can watch Labour’s first party election broadcast here.

The Lib Dems delayed their manifesto launch, scheduled for Tuesday, after Charles Kennedy’s pregnant wife Sarah was admitted to hospital.

At risk of being the last person to make the joke, the party denied, however, that she was in Labour.

You’re right. Not really much of a joke at all.

Sunday April 10

A Mori poll for The Observer shows Labour to have a significant lead - seven points, attributed to a so-called “Brown bounce” - among people who say they are “certain” to vote. This same group last week in the FT showed a clear majority for the Tories, but with some 40 per cent of respondents saying that although they were sure to vote, they could still change their minds between now and polling day.

The temperature-taking in Monday’s FT concentrates on the mood among business leaders, with a Mori poll of finance directors. Nine out of ten believe Labour would raise taxes on business.

Meanwhile, 49 per cent say the Conservatives have the best policies for business. Labour scores just 23 per cent, while six out of ten company directors say - perhaps unsurprisingly - they will vote Tory.

The row over the role of immigration in the campaign stepped up a notch this weekend, with the Tories making it their key issue, and UNHCR accusing Michael Howard of not letting the facts get in the way of a good slogan.

The Independent also reports that a former Tory immigration minister, Charles Wardle, will criticise Tory plans as “unworkable”, saying that this is Mr Howard’s attempt to “stir the issue rather than deal with it”.

While voters wait for the publication of the party manifestos, there’s also anticipation over the first round of party election broadcasts. Labour kicks off on Monday night with a Blair-Brown cuddlefest.

Peter Preston in The Observer has a nice run-down on how the British papers may line up come decision day.

The Mail on Sunday began serialising Peter Oborne’s new book ”The Rise of Political Lying”, while anyone worried by the potential for postal vote fraud won’t be cheered by a piece in the Sunday Times saying that a cabinet meeting last year decided that the law governing postal voting should be tightened. The measure was dropped after a study showed it would have the effect of reducing turnout among key Labour voters such as the young and poor.

The Times also reports that a YouGov poll shows 64 per cent of those surveyed think postal voting should be suspended until security can be improved, and that only 22 per cent of people trust the electoral system “a lot”.

And finally, read what you want into this, I guess, but it’s Mr Brown, and not Mr Blair, who makes the Time magazine list of 100 most influential people in the world.

Saturday April 9

The prime minister and chancellor head from Rome to Birmingham for crisis talks on Rover, and its thousands of potentially lost votes - sorry jobs - with some slim hope that a Chinese deal could still be revived.

Perhaps on the flight back, the two will have a chance to ratify their ”secret pact”, according to The Independent.

Even though those West Midlands constituencies are important to Labour’s overall strategy, in the current circumstances Mr Blair might want to avoid canvassing here on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Millwall are at home to Crewe on Saturday, giving their supporters an opportunity to see the huge Tory billboard right outside the ground with the “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration” message.

Although the question for some Lions fans perhaps shouldn’t be: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”, but something much shorter than that.

A new YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph has Labour on 36 with the Tories just one point behind, and the Lib Dems on 21. Tony Blair has a 34-26 lead over Michael Howard in personal popularity. Charles Kennedy is on 16.

Nick Assinder at the BBC looks at the high level of media management that Labour has put in place at its public events while the Daily Mail takes the PM to task for “hiding from the voters”, saying, graphically:

”Like a Mafia squealer who fears the reprisals of the Mob, he is cocooned at every turn.”

The Mail also has a picture of Labour’s rent-a-crowd, down to circling the same folks who appeared at both poster launches, this week and last month. They even seem to be wearing the same central casting outfits.

On the heels of the Birmingham postal vote fraud case, there’s this from Blackburn. But even that’s not as blatant as the folks who tried to sell their votes on eBay.

No wonder the folks behind think it’s a good idea to at least let people who won’t be voting explain why, rather than have the rest of us theorise on their behalf.

Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik, fresh from his appearance on The Late Edition, has demonstrated his dedication to the party’s cause by postponing his wedding to weatherperson Sian Lloyd, you’ll be, er, pleased to hear.

Finally, at Fullers pubs across London, drinkers can show their allegiance by using the ’Swig-O-Meter’ which counts votes - ie pints pulled from three different coloured pumps.

Once they’ve had a few, Nicholson’s customers will also be given the chance to put themselves in the shoes of the political party leaders by ….drafting a manifesto on the back of special beer mats.

And of course, there’s a certain wedding this weekend….

Friday April 8

The campaign is on hold on Friday for the Pope’s funeral, with the main party leaders heading to Vatican City.

The troubles at Rover and the government’s attempts to shift the blame look like they might throw a spoke in the wheel of Labour’s feelgood economy bandwagon, particularly in the West Midlands.

Although if we were expecting vicious, unrelenting attacks from the opposition parties, we reckoned without Lib Dem trade spokesman Malcolm Bruce.

”I am sure people will criticise the government” he said on Thursday night.

If, er, that’s all right with everyone….?

A poll for Scottish Television shows that Labour has a clear lead on 47 per cent, up 4 per cent from the last election. The big losers, though, seem to be the SNP, who are down 5 per cent at 15, tied with the Lib Dems. The Tories are in second, up 2 per cent to 18 per cent.

52 per cent of Scots surveyed said they were certain to vote, compared with a turnout of 58 per cent at the 2001 election.

Peter Riddell in The Times looks at Conservative expectations and the possibility of any kind of coalition with the Lib Dems.

He writes: ”Just ask Tory MPs what they hope/expect on May 5. Most would echo Michael Howard’s remark about wiping the smile off Tony Blair’s face.”

Or indeed, for wiping the floor of a dirty ward.

On a visit to a hospital in South London, Howard attacked Labour’s “obsession” with NHS targets, and said that “Patients are dying because of Mr Blair’s targets”.

For a street-level perspective on the NHS, crime, homelessness and other social issues, check out Jamie McCoy’s blog, Jamie’s Big Voice. Compelling stuff, and helps to remember that regardless of the rhetoric and promises, the election is - or should be - about real people.

George Galloway’s anti-war Respect coalition launched their election campaign saying they’re more than a single issue organisation; but it is that one single issue - the one that registered only 9 per cent of voters concerns - that could see Galloway worry sitting Labour MP Oona King in the Bethnal and Bow constituency in London’s East End.

Thursday April 7

With the prime minister wrapping himself in the warm glow of a relatively healthy economy, there was a hint that “the most successful chancellor for a hundred years” would, in fact, be staying in that job were Labour to win - with simply a brilliant picture on the front of The Guardian.

But, thankfully for those of us who love a good horserace, that victory might still be anything but certain.

A YouGov poll for Sky News puts Labour and the Tories neck-and-neck on 36, with the Lib Dems on 21.

But the interesting part of the survey is the fact that health and immigration are easily the two issues most people say will primarily make up their mind. The war in Iraq is almost at the bottom of the scale.

Even though Northern Ireland no longer features in those lists of election issues, Wednesday’s statement by Gerry Adams, calling on the IRA to end its armed struggle, could yet prove to be hugely significant if Downing Street can read the tealeaves correctly.

The IRA is apparently set to respond on Thursday to the challenge of taking ”courageous initiatives which will achieve [your] aims by purely political and democratic activity..”.

The Independent has a nice feature sifting “truth from spin” among the party leaders’ claims and counter-claims, while in Wednesday’s instalment of the whose-side-are-you-on stakes, Labour scored an equaliser, sort of.

Meanwhile, according to Ladbrokes, there hasn’t been a single bet on the prime minister increasing his majority in his Sedgefield constiutuency, although Labour is still heavily favoured to finish with an overall majority in the Commons.

After the PMQs exchange, where Michael Howard made much of the apparent reluctance of Labour candidates to put Tony Blair’s picture on their election leaflets, Nick Robinson on ITV News says that the cover of the freshly-printed Labour manifesto surprise, surprise, has no picture of the great leader either….

Wednesday April 6

The first flush of real campaigning, and if you’re a party leader it’s a day to be seen purposefully getting out of an expensive form of transport that shows you’re in a hurry to visit every hamlet the length and breadth of the country and hear what’s on the average voters’ mind.

The reality, of course, is quite different. Paul Vallelly in The Independent sums up the jet-setting and name-calling, and warns that over the next thirty days, especially if the polls continue to be as tight as they are, it will only get more personal.

Michael Howard attacked Labour’s ”smirking politics” but luckily wasn’t on Tyneside when he did so. Meanwhile the prime minister sent a five-page handwritten letter to Daily Mirror readers telling them why they should vote Labour.

Charles Kennedy - fresh from a poll showing him with the most favourable rating of the three main party leaders - got a further boost when Labour’s candidate in Ribble Valley defected to the Lib Dems.

But regardless of whatever image the leaders want to send, The Times is right on the mark, as it concentrates on the ”hidden election”, exploring how - just as in last year’s US presidential contest, where the outcome rested on a relatively small number of counties in key battleground states - voters in specific target constituencies will be bombarded with election paraphernalia and big name politicians, while those in safe seats one way or another might have a hard time even realising the election is on.

Michael Howard has told friends in recent weeks that the “people who matter” may number just 838,000 — less than 2 per cent of voters. If they can be persuaded to switch from Labour in 165 marginals, he says, the Tories would win an overall majority, the paper says.

Also in the Times, Simon Jenkins believes the Lib Dems might have the most to gain - morally, if not electorally - from a tactical shake-out. He writes:

As in American presidential campaigns, local people in “swing seats” must be made to feel special. Spotlights must be turned on them. They should be alerted to the role their constituency might play in the wider national drama. While the Tories must lower the temperature and “generate apathy”, the Liberal Democrats must get sophisticated. They must tactically vote their man into power.

And talking of big names, Sean Connery has recorded a voicemail message on behalf of the Scottish National Party, to be delivered to half a million homes in Scotland, despite concerns that it might be in breach of rules on cold-calling.

The government, meanwhile, said it would spend an extra £10m ensuring that postal voting was free from fraud, in response to the Birmingham poll-rigging verdict.

In the view from abroad, the Washington Post’s report on the start of the campaign says it “will test a volatile electorate’s judgment of the Iraq war”, while the New York Times says:

Another big challenge for Mr. Blair is to overcome voter apathy after two elections that gave him landslide majorities in the eight years since he first won power in 1997. To do that, he suggested Tuesday, he will embark on a personal campaign to try to restore the inspirational aura that surrounded his first few years as prime minister.

Tuesday April 5

So, one day later than we thought, but we’re finally off and running.

Two stories in the FT this morning must make encouraging reading over at Conservative Central Office.

A Mori poll shows the Tories with a 39-34 lead over Labour among that crucial group of people who say they are “certain to vote”.

Pollster Bob Worcester points out that 74 per cent of Tories say they are certain to vote, but only 57 per cent of Labour supporters say they are.

At the same time, the prime minister’s personal popularity continues to decline. He now has just a 14-point lead over Mr Howard. To put that in perspective, Mr Blair’s lead over William Hague in 2001 was 39 per cent.

It seems, even, that The Sun can’t be counted on to wholeheartedly back the government’s cause, with its ”Make Your Mind Up” editorial.

Perhaps this all puts John O’Farrell’s recent and much-maligned rallying email to Labour supporters into a bit of perspective. Maybe it is time for emotional blackmail after all.

But a possible bright spot in these figures for the government might be that 41 per cent - a huge number in this category - of people who said they will vote for one party or another said they might change their vote between now and the election.

(Although whether that actually means that disaffected Labour voters can’t make up their minds whether to vote for the Lib Dems or the Tories remains to be seen).

In other polls, the Guardian’s ICM poll has Labour three points ahead at 37-34, NOP in the Independent has 36-33, while a Populus poll for The Times has Labour on 37, Tories on 35 and the Lib Dems on 19 - and all of those margins are probably much closer than Labour would like, even at this stage.

Another blow to the government on Monday was the ruling in the Birmingham vote fraud case, where the behaviour of local candidates and their parties would, the judge said, “disgrace a banana republic”.

Maybe more important, though, in that story than the disqualification of the six Labour councillors, was the indictment of the whole postal voting system.

“Short of writing ‘steal me’ on the envelopes, it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure [postal ballots] coming into the wrong hands,” said the judge.

With record numbers of people applying for postal votes, it could presage, as Camilla Cavendish writes in The Times “voting fraud on a massive scale”.

The Independent, meanwhile, has an interview with Charles Kennedy where he says the party must take this opportunity to capitalise on its “unprecedented public goodwill”.

As The Economist asks this week: “What happens if the Lib Dems start to matter?” Or is their aim, as their strategy chief Lord Rennard says, to turn the campaign “into a big by-election”?

Finally, Tory candidate Iain Dale obviously believes the dirty tricks started a few days early…(see his blog entry for April 1).

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