The referendum Tony Blair never wanted - the verdict on his leadership - is about to take place. The dilemma facing the electorate is acute: should they base their decision on the merits of the parties or the merits of a man who promised so much, delivered a little and blundered into war? The dilemma facing Labour MPs after polling day is whether to act on the messages they have received across the country, or to allow the status quo to continue and risk sending their party into decline.
The mood has swung from anxiety, as Michael Howard's immigration pitch reached its feverish peak, to comfort, as polls suggested the line was not paying dividends, and now to confusion. The soundings on the ground do not correlate with the opinion polls. The predictions seat by seat vary wildly. The choreography of the national campaign passes the local battles by. Two conclusions can be drawn. Antipathy to the political process in its entirety is deep; the visceral hostility to Blair now extends beyond him.
In conversations with several dozen candidates over the past week, loyalist or otherwise, I have found not a single one who is advertising Blair's name as an electoral asset. One MP described the atmosphere as "pungent". Another mainstream Labour candidate, who is feeling worried about his prospects, says he was asked by party headquarters if he needed reinforcements. He told HQ that he did not want to be seen with anyone high up.
The extent of the malaise and prominence of Iraq varies. Mingled with the anger at Labour HQ over the Tory posters accusing the PM of lying is fear of the issue's salience. Blair fended off the latest disclosure of the Attorney General's legal advice on the Iraq attack with reasonable ease, but he cannot wipe off the stain. The details are complex and often misunderstood. The accusation is far stronger than why, when and how Lord Goldsmith changed his view on the legality of war between 7 and 17 March in 2003. It is that cabinet and parliament were misled into supporting the invasion, because they were told Goldsmith's brief explanation to them of his final statement represented his formal advice. It did not.
I have consistently refrained from using the "l" word. When giving evidence to the Butler inquiry, I tried to explain how Blair had for some time before the war privately expressed doubts about the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. He later represented the evidence to parliament as unequivocal. Did he know that to be categorically untrue, or did he will himself in desperation to remove his doubts? Given that treatment of intel-ligence is always a judgement call, it is difficult to prove any outright lying definitively. That Blair misled parliament, however, is incontrovertible. His refusal to apologise or address the specific charges, while obfuscating debates with arguments about the merits of regime change, is testament to his audacity.
It is also testament to the craven approach of a cabinet that sleep-walked into perhaps the greatest foreign policy misjudgements of the past 50 years. Cabinet ministers allowed themselves to be hoodwinked not just on WMDs and the legality but on a number of other falsehoods: that it was the French who ruined chances of a second United Nations resolution (not true); that the integrity of the UN was at stake (that is not how the UN saw it); and that other countries' intelligence services had the same intelligence on WMDs (they did, but they interpreted it quite differently). Evidence at the hustings suggests that voters, while focusing their distrust on Blair, also understand collective culpability.
It is not just the voters who are angry. Candidates have struggled to find volunteers to help them knock on doors. One official describes a number of constituency parties as "rotten boroughs". If this trend is left unchecked, local organisations will die on their feet. The age profile does not come close to the Tories', but it is moving that way. Blair is following in Margaret Thatcher's footsteps. The lady who won three elections also presided over the long-term demise of her party.
For Labour, this is the election of one more heave, begging the voters for one more chance. Anti-war candidates are also suffering the backlash, although not always to the same degree. One such prominent candidate, who has campaigned widely across the country, tells me ardently of the millions who have benefited from tax credits and from other material improvements over the past eight years for many of those in need. He cites an 84-year-old man in his constituency who declares this to be the best government he has had in his lifetime. But one sitting MPs says, "The only thing that is saving us is even greater antipathy towards Michael Howard." Blair has already promised that he will not look upon a victory as an endorsement for Iraq. That concession was eked out under duress. The latter stages of this dispiriting campaign suggest that even he will struggle to rewrite history in his favour. The moment he returns to Downing Street, the only question will be when he will vacate it.
Labour MPs are mulling the following options. Several say that if he wins a majority of more than a hundred (still not impossible) and tries to brazen it out, they could resign the party whip. Rather than joining Brian Sedgemore in defecting to the Liberal Democrats, they are considering creating an independent Labour faction.
A leadership challenge has not been ruled out. A year ago, a group of rebels calculated they had at most 64 potential signatories requiring a special leadership conference; in fact, the figure was probably in the mid-fifties. Either way, it was short of the 82 needed at the time. The rebels have their calculators at the ready. One of them promises action "within a fortnight" of parliament convening. At the very least, efforts will be made to revive the conference procedure, in which the leader has to be nominated formally. During the Blair hegemony this fell into abeyance.
All eyes are on Brown. Will he, in the words of a frustrated ally, "be bought off by the promise of a brighter future and the promotion of a few of his trusties"? Will he sit on his hands again? One former minister says: "If Gordon doesn't make his move soon, he ceases to be the solution and becomes part of the problem." Election day will mark either the beginning of the end of the Blair era, or the beginning of the end of Labour's hopes of becoming the natural party of government.