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Role of Blair in polls fuels questions

LONDON, Apr 1 – Tony Blair sprinkled a little stardust on Gordon Brown\’s election fight in Britain this week and is likely to squeeze in a couple more stump speeches — despite fears they could backfire.

Blair roused activists with a speech in his old constituency in Trimdon, northeast England, Tuesday after three years largely absent from domestic politics since handing over as prime minister to Brown in 2007.

In the five weeks before a knife-edge general election likely on May 6, Blair is set to make selected appearances, people close to him say, while meeting heavy travel commitments abroad, including as Middle East peace envoy.

Blair\’s spokesman Ciaran Ward told AFP the Trimdon speech marked his "entry" into the general election campaign and he would play a further part "at various points".

But he stressed there was "not going to be a huge change" in his schedule — which regularly includes commitments in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia, plus spending up to ten days a month in the Middle East.

His friend and former election agent John Burton added Blair was likely to make "one or two speeches around the country where the Labour party and Gordon would like him to".

But opinions are divided on whether Blair will help or hinder Labour as they bid to claw back support from David Cameron\’s opposition Conservatives and claim a surprise fourth consecutive term in office.

Some say Blair\’s role in leading Britain into the 2003 Iraq war and concerns over issues like government spin under his premiership mean he should stay off the campaign trail.

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"He evokes very strong antagonism, frankly, particularly because of the Iraq war," Peter Kilfoyle, a defence minister under Blair who resigned in 2000, told the BBC.

"But not only that — I think that he epitomises all that people see as wrong about new Labour".

The Conservatives have raised questions about Blair\’s financial affairs since he left office, prompting his office to insist the ex-premier pays tax in Britain "on all his income".

Such questions highlight that Blair has become a rich man since leaving office, thanks in part to lucrative speaking engagements around the world.

"How much money has he earned in the last three years?" asked Amanda Platell, a former Conservative communications chief.

"He has no connection now with real people, who are worried about keeping a roof over their heads, they are worried about their jobs," she added.

Blair now reportedly employs 130 people working on issues like African governance and faith, highlighting the size of the global brand he has built since leaving office.

Others, though, argue Blair is vital to help Labour seal support from wavering swing voters who voted him in on a landslide in 1997 — and who can be wary of Brown, who is seen as more left-wing.

"He will be able to appeal to many of those marginal voters who are very important in what is obviously going to be a very close election," ex Downing Street communications director David Hill told the BBC.

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Burton cited the 2000 US Presidential election — when Democrat Al Gore distanced himself from Bill Clinton over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — as an illustration of why Brown needs Blair.

"They still say to this day that if Al Gore had used Clinton, he would have won," he told AFP. "If Tony hadn\’t been invited, the press and media would have been asking about him".

Senior Conservative lawmaker David Davis even predicted Blair could "upstage" Brown, if his Trimdon address was a reliable indicator.

At this stage, though, it looks like Blair may have made little impact on the general public.

A YouGov daily poll for the Conservative-supporting Sun newspaper found Wednesday after Blair\’s speech that the Conservatives were still seven points ahead of Labour, the same as on Tuesday.

While 20 percent said the speech would help Labour, the same number said it would harm the party — and 52 percent said it would make little or no difference either way.


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