It has been a bit of a wobbly month for the Tories – which, for those of us who are left gasping daily at the sheer levels of ineptitude and dishonesty emanating from this discredited rump of a Government, takes some explaining. Why has the polling lead shrunk from big double digits to between 7 and 9? Are we now heading for a hung parliament? What’s gone wrong?
Well, first things first: lets get things into a bit of perspective. The polls are really not as bad as the reports are suggesting. Labour are stuck at around 30% in the polls, the Tories fluctuate around the 40% mark. And it is still worth bearing in mind that since 1987 only one pre-election poll has ever underestimated Labour – there almost certainly remains some degree of pro-Labour bias in the polls. Even saying that, the most consistent pollster, Angus Reid, has had the Tories maintaining a 16 point lead for months now.
The second point is that, although it now appears to be common wisdom that the Tories need at least a ten point lead in the polls to get a majority of even one seat, this is not necessarily the case. I have thought for a long time that differential swings in marginal seats would give the Tories a much larger majority than a standard UNS analysis would suggest. This was, obviously, based on nothing more than gut instinct – not a notably robust form of psephological analysis – so it was something of a relief to note Andy Cooke’s analysis on politicalbetting this morning saying much the same thing in a far more technically accomplished fashion.
But despite that, the Tories have definitely had a rocky January. I think there are really two reasons for this. The first is that, by starting their campaign early, the Tories have presented their opponents with a string of targets. Gaffes, some manufactured some not, have increased this sort of vulnerability. Labour, on the other hand, have reverted to a de facto opposition strategy of critiquing Tory policies without feeling the need to present alternatives. The second is that, rather than policy presentation, Labour have focused on international grandstanding of one type or another – from Northern Ireland to Greece (where Gordon Brown is going to lecture the Greek Prime Minister on the dangers of running an out-of-control fiscal deficit. Satire is dead. Again) – where Brown can look like a statesman, and the Tories are shut out altogether.
This is effective for Labour, but really can’t last. Eventually they will have to get into the ring, and it is at that point that the effectiveness of the rival campaigns will be properly tested. One delayed advantage of going in early for the Tories should be that they are immunised to a degree from the charge of being policy-light. They will be able to respond that they have been setting out their policies for months, and where are Labour’s?
Ultimately, of course, this election will be won and lost on one slogan: Gordon Brown, five more years! For all the showy optimism of the last few weeks, Bruce Anderson’s anonymous cabinet minister captures the real mood = far more accurately:
The other day, a Cabinet minister had lunch with a journalist. "What happens if you win?" enquired the hack. The minister looked astonished. It was clear that this possibility had not occurred to him. Having regained the power of speech, he replied: "There'd be an immediate leadership challenge". Mandelson may be running the election campaign, but Gordon Brown will be leading it. That is a challenge beyond even Lord Mandy's powers.