Strange case of the vanishing Prime Minister

Simon McGee SUSPICIONS about Labour candidates purposefully dropping the Prime Minister from their election leaflets were first raised in this column a while back when International Development Secretary and Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn's own glossy pre-election offering contained no photographs of the mighty Blair.

It wasn't so every long ago that every leaflet produced by the party carried the obligatory cheesy photo of smiling candidate and beloved Prime Minister shaking hands.

Benn's newsletter featured only one other Cabinet member – a smiling Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Now it emerges that the production of Blair-free literature has the full approval of Labour high command.

For Blair's winning smile isn't quite the electoral asset that it once was so Labour, which is still relatively popular, is now content with quietly dropping the PM.

Candidates have even got permission to criticise the leader without fear of reprisal, which always helps on the streets.

"They don't like him on the doorstep," says one blunt backbencher.

"I'm doing my best to keep him out of everything."

My interview with Europe Minister and Rotherham MP Denis MacShane this week was enlivened by frequent interruptions from his special adviser. She did her best to interject with "Denis can't comment on that" whenever it looked like he was indeed going to let rip on subjects, like the furore over gipsies, in his characteristically headline-provoking way.

But it turns out that Blair's EU ambassador at large was saving himself for his visit to France where he decided to indulge in some good old fashioned name-calling.

French opponents of the EU constitution were "neo-cretins", he told an audience of students while in Bordeaux with his French counterpart campaigning for a

Oui vote in their constitution referendum.

MacShane urged the audience

to ignore "the reactionaries, the

neo-conservatives, the neo-communists and les no-cons who

are trying to persuade you that voting no to the treaty is a good thing".

A "con" is a popular, if vulgar French insult, which translates as "a damn fool; a bloody idiot; a cretin" – hardly a devastating insult.

But a particularly touchy

French Socialist anti-constitution MP, Arnaud Montebourg, thought different – and decided to take the astonishing step of launch legal proceedings against MacShane for the crime of "public abuse".

M Montebourg, a lawyer

described by some as a cross between Teresa Gorman and Robert Kilroy, also demanded an "immediate and public apology... to all French promoters and partisans of the no vote".

Last night, the minister was unrepentant. "I'm just astonished that he's found an 1881 law to be so precious," said Mr MacShane.

"I've had loads of phone calls from France congratulating me – a month in British politics might help convince him that robust language is not something that should be banned from public life."

The Tories – sorry, Conservatives – were ridiculed this week for

asking that broadcasters try to

refer to them by their party's

name.

Press officer Michael Salter

asked: "Just a quick thought. In

the run up to the general election

is there any way people could call

us Conservatives rather than

Tories? It will be Conservative candidates people are voting for and they will be Conservative policies rather than Tory."

I don't see what's so wrong about being called an Irish horse thief when hardly anyone knows what it means, but I suppose you can understand why the party high command might not like it

Perhaps someone somewhere imagines that the party is missing out on thousands of votes because electors can't find the magic word on the ballot paper?

Normanton Tories have selected

27-year-old Hull city councillor Andrew Percy to take on

Gordon Brown's former adviser

Ed Balls in the relatively safe Labour seat.

But Percy, a teacher, is a key lieutenant to Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, who has a proper fight on his hands in his highly marginal Haltemprice and Howden constituency if the challenging Liberal Democrats are to be kept at bay.

So is this a sign of confidence in

the Davis camp that Percy's help is

no longer required? Or just confirmation that the Tories will barely put up a fight against Balls in Normanton?