One obvious one is the opposition trying
to exploit the issue of leadership tension in the government, just as
the federal ALP did in 2001 and 2004. It didn’t work for them, and it
doesn’t seem to be working for the Tories here either. Unless there’s
actual blood on the floor, voters seem to accept rivalry at the top as
a normal or even positive thing.

Another interesting comparison
is between the position of the opposition in the UK and that of the
non-Labor parties at state level in Australia. Think particularly of
the 2003 NSW state election, where the opposition tried to stake out a
position to the right of Bob Carr, only to discover that he was already
occupying so much of that ground that there was no room left for them.

Tony
Blair has moved his party to the right in many of the same ways that
Bob Carr had: tough on crime, sceptical about civil liberties and about
immigration, “managerialist” in their approach to public service
delivery. This repositioning limits the scope for a flanking manoeuvre
on the right, as previous Tory leaders here discovered. To
differentiate himself, Michael Howard has had to venture even further
out, into the ugly political territory pioneered for him by Australia’s
own Lynton Crosby.

But the thing that will haunt Tony Blair for
the rest of his career above all else is the Iraq war. Just as the
outbreak of war overshadowed the 2003 NSW election, so war issues have
returned to dominate this campaign. Last week it was the release of
secret legal advice showing that the Blair government was indeed told
what everyone already knew – that the legal case for going to war was,
to put it mildly, very shaky indeed.

The Tory strategy has been
to keep the war in the spotlight in the hope that voters will draw a
more general moral from Blair’s untrustworthiness. But “trust” is a
fickle issue for oppositions, as Mark Latham discovered last year.
Because the Tories supported the war, the issue does not seem to be
moving votes to them: to the extent that the attacks on Blair are
biting, it is the Liberal Democrats, who opposed the war, who are
gaining.

Tony Blair was the one man who could have stopped the
Iraq war, and he chose not to. While there would be satisfaction for
many people in seeing him pay the price for that decision, justice will
not be well served if the benefit goes to those who would have acted
exactly the same way.

In a three-party system, however, with
first-past-the-post voting, the relationship between votes and seats is
complex and unpredictable. A swing from Labour to the Lib Dems will
almost certainly deliver some seats to the Tories, even if their vote
fails to improve at all. Conversely, there are some areas where a
movement from Labour to Conservatives would result in the Liberals
winning extra seats. So although the government still doesn’t look to
be in danger, there is plenty of opportunity for surprises.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off