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Gary Younge
A royal progress - but where is the inspiration?

So in the waiting crowds, big or small one would expect a frisson of excitement, prompted if not by his politics then at least by his proximity. It is rare that most people get to be in the physical presence of the powerful. And with a thumping majority in the Commons and an even bigger lead in the polls, Tony Blair is nothing if not powerful.

But the current of anticipation you would expect to flow through the waiting crowd is absent. As he steps out of the car and waves over their heads into the middle distance, he walks into an atmosphere vacuum. Walk two streets up the road of a town like Dartford or Gravesham, where he was earlier this week, and people will either not know he is there or know but not much care.

Those who pass in cars do not beep their horns in support or hurl abuse from an open window. They slow down and stare as they would at the wreckage of a car crash.

Rarely straying from the set texts that have been provided for him, his speeches are well-delivered but uninspiring. By page five of a nine-page speech in Gravesham the Labour-supporting man next to me asked me to indicate where he was on the printed versions handed out to journalists. Like a child on a long car journey asking, "are we there yet?" he would ask four more times before Mr Blair finally drew to a close.

Even among the party faithful he is the centre of attention but not the centre of interest. Like a footprint in the sand or a thumb in a lump of dough, he makes a slight but definite impact but leaves no lasting impression.

This may not matter. Despite the increasingly presidential style of our campaigns, we have not yet reached the situation, as they did in the US last year, where a national election becomes a referendum on which person you would most like to have a drink with. And if Britain is in the mood for a visionary then that is not obvious from those who intend to vote, and impossible to discern from those who don't.

Nonetheless, it is difficult not to be struck by the discrepancy between Mr Blair's overwhelming lead in the polls and his underwhelming presence on the road. He is trusted, but not particularly well liked.

The effect of his campaign, if anything, will be to cement that. Being ferried around on one of his battle buses (there are three; Strong Economy for the print journalists, Strong Leadership for television and photographers and Strong Britain, for Mr Blair and his immediate entourage) is a veritable mystery tour.

His aides will not tell us where we are going even while we are travelling there. They say this is for security reasons. Were that true it would suggest either a serious threat that we do not know about or a serious lack of competence in his security team.

The fact that it is patently not true is yet one more piece of evidence of just how tightly Millbank is seeking to control events. Shortly after finally being told of the destination you are handed a printed handout explaining the purpose of the visit as though on a primary school trip.

"The prime minister is attending a question and answer event with women from the local community," said one. "The event will highlight Labour's commitment to addressing the concerns of women."

Travelling with them for a few days you feel not so much their guest as their captive. You will be drip-fed small falsehoods to ensure that even if you are not on message you will at least be in situ.

"You must go upstairs now. The event's about to start and the room is already full," one journalist was told, only to make her way to a half empty room half an hour before anything happened.

"You can't leave now for security reasons," I was told at the end of the same event, only to see several apparatchiks wander in and out of the same door.

There are directives to govern your most intimate moments. Explaining the toilet rules on the Strong Economy the press aide warned: "How can I put this? No solids in the toilet, I'm afraid." If there was ever an anally retentive campaign then this is it.

The result is a series of exceptionally dull set-piece events that have more in common with a royal tour than an election campaign. Mr Blair arrives at a fire station in Dartford or an NHS direct call centre in Croydon, swaps awkward small talk with the staff, tries to look fascinated and then heads off. Like a pre-packed chicken dinner it is made for TV. And it has the same effect too. You are left feeling unsatisfied and slightly nauseous.

Left there this would not be a problem. The purpose of the Labour campaign is not to make life interesting for journalists but to secure a resounding victory on election day. But it betrays a far more deep-rooted flaw in the New Labour psyche. Four years after they trashed the Tories at the polls and only weeks before they are about to do it again, they still lack confidence.

They are still terrified of anything they do not control and are still blind to the idea that it is possible to be both critical and supportive. Hence their absurd notion that television companies were encouraging protesters. As though there could be no legitimate protest to them unless it was orchestrated by the media.

Moreover it does not play to Mr Blair's strengths. He is not much good at small talk. But he is very convincing when explaining his record in office. At an event with women in Wimbledon he tackled a series of questions, many of which were clearly not planted.

"How comes Labour found a safe seat for Shaun Woodward but cannot get more women into parliament?" asked one.

"I appreciate what you've done for pensioners recently but why won't you restore the link to earnings?" said another. These are exactly the kind of concerns he must allay if he is to motivate his core vote.

There were moments, particularly at the beginning, when eyes glazed over to the tune of "No more return to boom and bust". But for the most part he answered them well.

Although there was little Clintonesque empathy in sight - Mr Blair did not feel anybody's pain - all the other qualities one expects in a leader were there; clarity, humour and most of all honesty. When he doesn't know the answer to a question he says: "I don't know." And he has an uncanny knack of being able to tell people things they do not want to hear in a manner which makes them glad they asked anyway.

After the event I asked one woman who had asked whether there wasn't something he could do to stop the disproportionate number of private school children going to the best universities - the answer was basically no - what she thought of his answer.

"I still don't agree with him but I did find him impressive."

"Did you feel inspired?" I asked.

"No," she said. "But very impressed."

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