Opinion: Conservatives continue to set the agenda

'Tactically clever but strategically weak' was how Alastair Campbell described the Tories' NHS stunt - or 'the war of Margaret's shoulder' as it has become known. That is high praise indeed, but only confirms the widely held belief in Labour circles that Campbell is no election strategist.

Campbell wasn't working for Labour when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown first took the decision to take the Tories head-on in their strongest policy areas, crime and the economy. It was this plan more than anything else that eventually gave New Labour two landslide victories, and no one knows this better than Michael Howard. Significantly it was Howard who told the Tories that there should be no 'no go' areas for him, and last week he remained true to his word.

Conservative campaign director Lynton Crosby chose a familiar tactic to get the NHS story up and running. They used a real-life tale, knowing the media are obsessed with human-interest stories.

As soon as Howard lit the blue touchpaper at Prime Minister's Questions, Labour's campaign team was on the back foot. To give you some idea as to how rattled Labour really was, Blair ripped up his prepared speech for the Scottish Labour conference and devoted almost all of it to a personal attack on the Tory leader.

The strategic question is whether the electorate take kindly to such obvious stunts. They may say they don't, but the same people claim they don't like negative campaigns, yet fall for them.

The war of Margaret's shoulder has inevitably, though wrongly, been compared with the case of Jennifer's ear in the run-up to the 1992 election, when a schoolgirl waiting for an NHS operation was used in a Labour election broadcast.

The case was different because Labour never intended for the girl's identity to get out - it only did because a press officer let a hack read her notes.

Indeed, Labour had good reason: her family included Tory supporters who were not going to take too kindly to their little girl being used in such a way. The Tories were just as concerned about Margaret Dixon, which is why they had 'minders' stationed in her house. Ironically, this over-the-top protection got Health Secretary John Reid off the hook from visiting her.

The Tories won this little war but shouldn't get too cocky. Remember the OAP they claimed had been left on a hospital trolley for a day caked in blood? She turned out to be a racist who refused to be treated by a black nurse.

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