Opinion: I'm calling the seat count already

It wasn't the Pope's death that forced Tony Blair to delay the election announcement, it was the unprecedented saturation of press coverage, orchestrated in part by the most awesome Vatican PR machine.

But the event presented the Prime Minister with an invaluable media opportunity.

It was another chance to strut the world stage and to appear statesman-like as he declared his deep sadness for the loss of the people's Pope.

Nobody does this stuff better than Blair, and if you had any doubt, then the TV clips of Michael Howard's reaction to the demise of the pontiff should dispel them.

So the starting gun was fired a day late, but this will not change the result or the campaign tactics. By the time the manifestos are released, most people will already have made up their minds on which way they will vote.

Yes, although no one involved in politics likes to admit it, the truth is that the general election campaign never really makes that much difference to the result. This is principally because the broadcast media, at least, give all parties a fair hearing.

Fortunately, none of this means the election campaign will be dull. Those of us involved in PR and communications will enjoy judging who is running the best show. We all remember how, in 1987, Labour won the campaign but lost the election. This time round, Labour got off to a poor start but, thankfully, Blair seems to have accepted that fighting the election on the economy is much more likely to win him his third term than Alan Milburn prattling on about more reform.

Labour may not win as convincingly as the last two times but I will be astonished if its majority is not over 100. The only story will be what Blair does with Brown.

It's almost possible to feel sorry for the Tories. Their campaign team is so much more professional today, but as no one, not even Lynton Crosby, expects them to win, they have little to lose. With this talented Aussie in charge we can at least expect some new election tactics. This will not be a clean campaign, and thank goodness for that.

Nationally, the Liberal Democrats will, as usual, give us a load of sanctimonious claptrap about how dirty and negative the two main parties are - but, as anyone who has experienced the reality of their local campaigning knows, they often play it dirtier than most.

The polls will of course be there to guide us but remember, they nearly always get it wrong, and so do political pundits.

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