Published: 05/05/2005, Volume II5, No. 5954 Page 10
One of the tricks of the weekly columnist's trade is calculating where political interest may have refocused between the acts of writing a piece and its publication. It does not always work and this week offers a classic hiding to nothing.
Depending on the urgency with which you read this page, there is every chance that you know the election result, which I do not.
Matters are made worse because in 2005 I cannot confidently make a prediction ahead of the event that is certain not to look stupid by the weekend. I boast that I have predicted the correct result in all the elections I have covered since 1970 while graciously conceding that I grossly underestimated Labour's landslides in 1997 and 2001.
I did so because I failed to grasp how much the untried Blair had caught the public mood. Indeed, I remember telling one anti-Blair Labour MP that the new PM had a 93 per cent approval rating. His response? 'Seven per cent, eh? We can build on that.' He later spread his own joke, mischievously attributing it to the loyalist backbencher Patricia Hewitt.
Eight years on, Ms Hewitt is in Cabinet (or is she still? ) while the joker is still noisily plotting against Blair (or did said joker lose his vulnerable seat? ). But voters have fallen out of love with 'Bliar', as this four-week campaign has shown with savage candour. It is the hardest election I have ever had to predict.
Visiting US pundits are astonished by the way media and voters here treat their elected leader.
US presidents - who are head of state as well as government - are never dissed in this fashion. They have an elective monarchy, we have a crowned republic and happily chop off heads.
I prefer our way. But the scale of public anger is the root cause of my root uncertainty. I would be surprised, but no longer shocked, if Labour has done really badly, even lost, by Friday morning. The effect of the stay-at-homes and the defectors to Cheerful Charlie Kennedy has made things impossible to calculate, nationally or locally.
Was he 'too left wing' to pick up disaffected Tory votes, as Labour suggested this week?
Ditto the effect of Michael Howard's highly disciplined 10-word campaign, including 'cleaner hospitals', though he forgot to wash his own hands. Did it all galvanise more support than it alienated?
Between them, his rivals may even have helped Mr Blair to chalk up another sort-of-landslide, possibly on a much-reduced vote: a 39 per cent share of a 50 per cent turnout is my worst fear. What kind of mandate is that?
HSJ's fascinating survey of NHS managers' bleak views of party policies ('How managers administered a painful kick in the teeth', pages 16-17, 28 April) underlined that, while Labour commands most support, there are huge zones of tension for whoever takes over if health secretary John Reid moves on. Where will he go?
Not to the Foreign Office, I risk predicting.
Watch the shape of the reshuffle in terms of the Blair-Brown dynamic. 'If Tony tries to make it ultra-New Labour he's thinking of staying on for the full term, ' one senior minister warns.
Did it matter that Mr Blair did not know how some GPs now handle booking appointments within a 48hour time-frame during his 'masochism' session with David Dimbleby's aggressive TV audience?
The Daily Beast made a predictable meal of it.
Wouldn't it be good if The Beast's vicious campaign smears prove to be in vain?
Did it matter either that Blair sweated towards the end of his ordeal - his 'Nixon moment', according to The Beast? Not much, I would say. Those TV lights get very hot and he'd had the day from hell over Iraq (again).
I have not liked this ragged campaign. Too much 'under the radar' activity in the marginals where I can't see it that makes me nervous. Too much unpleasant language, even countenanced by Mr Kennedy in his own way.
I think a healthy result for the body politic would be modest progress for Mr Howard - we need the Tories to recover to make the system work. And voters want to reward Mr Kennedy's anti-war stance. Labour's majority halved?
Let me know. .
Michael White is political editor of The Guardian.