Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Morale low as Labour return to work

Political Editor Phil Hornby blogs from Parliament

MPs are back at Westminster after the long weekend. And what a long, long weekend it's been for Labour MPs from the south and southeast.

Almost all of them know they are staring down the barrel. Last week's local election results were so bad, and morale in the party is so low.

Conversations I have had with some of them today suggest they weren't cheered up by the Gordon Brown's weekend TV appearances.

To watch a Prime Minister sit in TV studios and be accused of being 'strange' and having a cabinet full of 'youngsters and pygmies' didn't do much to reassure them about their party's prospects.

Tory MPs on the other hand just can't stop smiling in the Westminster sunshine. Many of them will be heading north in the next few weeks, to help out in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, which has taken on huge importance in the past few days. If the Tories win there, the pro-Cameron momentum will feel unstoppable.

The Conservatives though have quite a few awkward questions to answer. What will their policies be? There are lots of generalisations, but not many specifics.

Take the environmental agenda, for instance. Being pro-green sounds attractive, but what about green taxes? Will the Tories be bold enough to talk about increasing the tax on fuel (making driving, and flying, more expensive)? What about the bin tax, which is so unpopular Gordon Brown has now un-announced it twice? What about airport expansion? What about a tax on plastic bags?

And, again, on poverty, it's easy to criticise the fiasco over the 10p tax rate, but what exactly would the Tories do to help the least well-off?

They will say they don't have to come up with specific proposals until the next general elections, which is true - but these are difficult decisions, whenever they are made.

As for the Liberal Democrats, their southern MPs know a big Tory comeback would sweep most of them away. They desperately need Nick Clegg to make an impact, and not just in the pages of GQ magazine.

The next election is probably two years away, and that's an awful long time in politics. Remember just eight months ago Labour were riding high in the polls and some grumbling Conservatives were saying David Cameron's days were numbered.

But things do feel very different here at the moment. It's as if something very significant is happening, a big change which will be incredibly difficult for Labour to do anything about. In fact it feels here just as it did in the early 1990s, when the tide turned against the Tories. They suffered three landslide by-election defeats in the south - in Newbury, Christchurch and Eastleigh. And Tory MPs knew they were doomed.

That's just how quite a lot of Labour MPs feel right now.

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