On most of the measures that are usually used, the Conservatives should be strolling towards a clear win in May. The Party is ahead of Labour on the economy in the polls, as David Cameron is of Ed Miliband on leadership. The Tories have a consistent message based on growth and jobs (the “long-term economic plan”) while Labour has nothing other than the “cost of living crisis” – still being expounded as voter optimism about the economy reaches a record high.
The Tories have pared back their message in order to push a mainstream one about security. Meanwhile, Miliband has moved Labour to the left, which Tony Blair fears will lead to an election “in which a traditional leftwing party competes with a traditional rightwing party, with the traditional result”. The Tories are united – at least in public – while Labour is divided, with members of its Shadow Cabinet now launching leadership bids.
Most of the Conservative older statesman are onside. Some of Labour’s are in open revolt, with Alan Milburn and John Hutton emerging recently to lacerate Miliband over NHS reform, and Peter Mandelson issuing a classic non-denial denial over tapping up Alan Johnson over a leadership bid. The Tories have problems because of UKIP. But so, too, do Labour. These may be to a lesser extent, at least in the short-term. However, Miliband must also wrestle with the SNP and the Greens.
The Tory papers have swung behind Cameron. Labour is besieged by complaining businessmen (and nuns). Its leader is beaten up by the Prime Minister each week in the Commons. The stocks are sold, the press is squared, the middle class is quite prepared…
…And yet, according to the learned Anthony Wells, Labour has been ahead of the Conservatives in eight of the last 12 opinion polls. Three saw the two parties level. Only one solitary survey has found the Party ahead, and that by a single point.
It’s true that what will count in May is the vote in the marginals. But the evidence from Lord Ashcroft’s polls suggests that what’s happening in them is not all that different from what’s happening elsewhere. So what happens next?
There are two main possibilities.
The first is the scenario actively pushed by Downing Street and CCHQ. Thanks to the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, voters know when the election will be. So they have the luxury of being able to wait to make up their minds. They are not yet willing to engage with the coming election. When they do, a 1992-type result will follow. The Tories will emerge from the election as the largest single party, if not with an outright majority, and Cameron will return to Downing Street.
The second is less cheering. It is that not enough voters feel the benefit of the recovery, and that voter resistance to the Party is high: in short, Labour leads it on values – hence its stubborn poll leads. The effects of this will be felt in the crucial midlands and northern marginals, as the Greens, who are less well dug-in than UKIP, fade away. And in culture of estrangement from the Westminster Village, the slick Conservative campaign and the shambling Labour one count for less than before.
But in practice, the vote distribution, the Liberal Democrat vote collapse and the resilience of UKIP (since most evidence suggests that it takes more from the Party than its rivals) all help Labour.
For the moment, the Conservative mood is buoyant. As I reported recently, many candidates in the 40/40 are bullish. The estranged Right is keeping its head down.
However, the media mood is fickle by nature, and the lobby will get tired of keel-hauling Miliband – at least, if the polls don’t move. What will happens if they haven’t by the end of next month?