Opinion: Leader - Tories misguided to focus on 'mistrust'

We are two weeks into a new year and already the general election campaign has begun in earnest. It has been fascinating to watch the strategic battlelines emerging.

Political campaigns are almost unique in their PR-led nature; the coverage generated by media photocalls vastly outweighs the value of the media space purchased for the ad campaigns themselves. Labour's initial posters - crowing about the lowest unemployment for decades - are an ironic nod to the Tories' seminal 'Labour's not working' campaign of the 1970s.

In the light of Iraq, Labour is sensibly concentrating on its economic record, a difficult area for the other parties to unravel. The Conservatives, rather predictably, are leading on 'trust', clearly believing the 'Iraq question' has been given added spice from Gordon Brown's apparent mistrust of the grinning man who lives next door. Expect these central ad themes to be hammered home by volleys of editorial soundbite over the coming weeks.

But one suspects the Tories have chosen the wrong strategy. There is little evidence that public mistrust is damaging Tony Blair's electoral prospects. Indeed, a Populus poll for The Times earlier this week put Labour on a popularity rating of 38 per cent against the Tories' 33 per cent. It is now clear that, for a while, Blair accepted that his reputation had become a strategic flaw for his government and party, and was pencilling in a medium-term stand-down. But George Bush's barnstorming re-election snuffed out such thoughts.

History tells us, in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, that as long as the electorate see a strong, decisive leader at the helm, and their economic situation is not worsening, they will stick with the incumbent.

In a sense, the Brown/Blair schism simply reinforces this, portraying two powerful, ambitious men at the nation's controls. This is not to say Labour cannot be outmanoeuvred. But Michael Howard urgently needs some fresh advice.

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