J.F.O. McAllister: It's no surprise that he called the election now, because Britain has to hold an election every five years, but governments typically call a new one in year four if the political climate is favorable, because they don't want to wait till a time when their backs may be against the wall.
Blair was originally going to call it for May but postponed it because of the foot and mouth crisis. It's awkward to have an election campaign when quarantine rules prevent you from walking around certain areas, and the Tory opposition would have used that to make him look arrogant and insensitive. So Blair postponed, against the wishes of many in his own party, and the gamble appears to have paid off. Foot and mouth is on the decline, and he's gotten credit for being sensitive. He was never going to win the countryside anyway, and he doesn't need it to win the election.
So Blair believes he has an unassailable lead?
Well, he has a 20-point lead in the polls. There’s no real contest here. Labor kept that lead even through the foot and mouth crisis. (Conservative Party leader) William Hague does not impress voters even a substantial number of Tories believe Blair would make a better leader. And the newspapers have been full of leaked stories about Tory infighting over who will replace Hague as party leader when he loses the election. The party has also suffered damage in a public row over racist comments by a retiring member of parliament which the party did not repudiate quickly enough. So delaying the election turned out to be a great thing for Labor.
Are there any issues on which the Tories can hurt Labor?
Blair is vulnerable to accusations of non-delivery on promises, arrogance, spin-doctoring and being too focused on his public image, and to a lesser extent on taxes and crime. The only issue on which the Conservatives are clearly ahead is Europe the scope of European Union powers, and on preserving the pound rather than going over the Euro. But Europe ranks fifth or sixth in importance on the list of voter concerns, and on crime, the economy, taxes, public services, health and education, Labor is either ahead or more or less even with the Tories. And Blair has promised a referendum on Europe and the pound, so that neutralizes the power of the Tories’ strongest issue. That leaves little space for Hague to fashion a victory.
How has Blair managed to recover from the disappointment that many of his party's own supporters were voicing two years into his tenure?
The easy answer is that the Tories are even more hopeless. Blair is concerned that disappointment factor may keep many of his supporters away from the polls and create a low turnout. But remember, the Tories were in power for 18 years before Blair, and voters are inclined to recognize that he got the economy right. He says he's going to do tougher things in second term; the country is inclined to give him another chance. It's not going to be an exciting campaign Blair appears to be trying to get voters excited about his sobriety.
How has Britain swung from 18 years of Tory government to an apparantly unassailable Labor monopoly on power?
You have to remember that the Tories ruled for 18 years in part because the Labor Party was such a disaster for most of that period. It was only under Blair that the party managed to reclaim most of the middle ground issues, leaving the Tories little to campaign on. And the pendulum has swung in the society away from the Thatcherite virtues of individuality and self-reliance. The trains stink and public services are in decline, and Britons are prepared to pay to improve them not as much as other Europeans, perhaps, but they still want these things to be fixed by government. And the Tories are not well suited to present themselves as the party that will save the National Health Service. Now it is the Tories who are fundamentally confused and divided, and that's making life easier for Labor. But Blair was always going to get a second term he'd have had to mess up badly to lose his first bid for reelection.