Election Watch 2005: Flight sacking leaves Tory campaign in crisis

A week is a long time in politics, and in a general election campaign it is time enough for a complete reversal in fortunes.

Previously flying high after a series of precision strikes on emotive issues, the (Howard) Flight saga showed how one piece of indiscipline could undermine the whole Tory campaign.

On Tuesday, the party's election machine moved quickly to put immigration back on the agenda, with a promise to create a dedicated border control force. But as PRWeek went to press, a grass roots rebellion was threatening to distract the so-far-successful 'issue by issue' strategy.

Labour's populist decision to allocate more money to school meals prompted many commentators to accuse the party of letting a certain cockney chef decide its manifesto.

More importantly, Gordon Brown was set to take his place at the centre stage of Labour's election effort by strengthening the campaign's focus on the economy.

Countering accusations that they are 'soft on crime', the Lib Dems outlined their manifesto in this area promising a 'tough, disciplined approach', offering to recruit 10,000 more police officers.

It was also a week in which leader Charles Kennedy admitted that his leadership could be under threat if the party's performance did not improve on last time around.

- Charlie Whelan, p16

COLIN BYRNE

The campaign proper hasn't even started, but the Tories are already showing that they like to dish it out but they don't like taking it. How can taping an indiscreet speech, made by a senior Tory spokesman at a publicly advertised meeting just weeks before an election, be a dirty trick?

Then there is the poster row, with the Tories claiming that Labour's public spending and NHS posters are a 'big lie'. They may stretch the truth a little, but who introduced the technique in 1992 with their infamous 'Labour's tax bombshell' poster? Step forward the Tory party.

Not that Labour are free of short memories. Alan Milburn says he wants to make Michael Howard's Australian spin doctor an election issue - despite Labour having American political consultants on hand for years.

Colin Byrne is CEO, UK and Ireland for Weber Shandwick. He formerly ran the Labour Party press office

OLLY GRENDER

The Labour party is once again on the ropes on the issue of Iraq, saved only by a breathtaking lack of discipline by Howard Flight.

Each time a story like the Attorney General's advice, or last week's Defence Select Committee report emerges on the agenda, it refocuses the minds of the voters about why they continue to feel aggrieved about this issue.

Iraq in itself is not an issue. It is the suggestion in people's minds that their Prime Minister somehow misled them, co-operated with George Bush and diminished this nation in the process.

Six months ago, a senior Lib Dem voiced concerns to me that Iraq would be off the agenda for the campaign. He needn't have worried. The danger is that anger will lead people not to vote, rather than switching to another party, and that is a considerable challenge for the Lib Dems.

Olly Grender, MBE, is a freelancer at public affairs agency APCO. She is a former aide to Paddy Ashdown.

NICK WOOD

Every campaign has its crisis moment. For Michael Howard, nemesis came early in the shape of unguarded comments from Howard Flight, wealthy City maverick turned MP.

Flight claimed the Conservatives were secretly planning to take a flame-thrower to public spending. Howard sacked him, not just from his front bench sinecure, but also from his comfy berth as MP for leafy Arundel.

An over-reaction by the quick-tempered Howard? No. The Tory Leader has to crush any suggestion that Tony Blair is right to accuse him of a tax and spending con-trick.

Howard's way has been messy and brutal. But provided he wins through against grass roots grumbling and legal threats, he'll have made it clear he's boss. Would-be Tory troublemakers beware.

Nick Wood is MD of Media Intelligence Partners. He was formerly media director for the Conservative Party and chief political correspondent of The Times.

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