Tuesday, December 20, 2005

 

Tory poll lead sign of a sea change?

When does that 'sea change' or 'geological shift' occur in British politics? 1945 was an obvious example when voters kicked out the man who won the war. 1979 was another when James Callaghan, returning to Number 10 after voting sensed a change of allegaince and hope in the country. For the Conservatives nemesis occurred on 16th September, ' Black Wednesday', in 1992 when Norman Lamont announced our exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. We did not realise the latter at the time but subsequently the graph line of opinion poll support was virtually flatline horizontal at 30-33%.

In September 2000 the Fuel Crisis prompted a brief and unheady spike in the graph but since then the life support machine has been bleeping fuiously. Then along came Dave. Now we see an ICM poll in The Guardian registering a one per cent lead for the party led by the young Etonian. Just as intriguing is the response to the question about PM -in- Waiting Brown; then the Tories would have a five per cent lead and the Lib Dem's figure reduce from 21 to 18. Are we present at yet another sea change moment? As in 1992 we will have to wait; it is too early to conclude anything and factors to weigh include:
a) Blair's resilience: he is now a hardened old professional who has weathered many a storm. He faces huge internal oppostion over his reform package, especially over education, but he still has room for manoeuvre through making concessions or changing tack.
b) the IMF currently predict economic recovery to former growth rates by 2007 which, if it happens, should help Gordon Brown's chances of overhauling any Conservative lead opening up.
c) don't even rule out the possibility that Blair might be seen as the better candidate to take on Cameron and be persuaded to stay on for another charge into the electoral fray.
d)An alternative to Brown mightr also be a possibility. George Osborne, in that Q and A I chaired on 24th November reckoned he'd rather face Brown than the youthful David Miliband and don't rule out someone like him emerging as a rival to a Brown who is closer to Blair than many realise and who lacks Blair's gift for optimism and popular communication
e) Cameron has had a dream debut as leader but is still young and raw; a major slip can never be ruled out and both Hague and IDS faced real problems once six months into their leadership tenures.

The one per cent lead we see today could easily turn out to be a blip. I was struck last Saturday morning, listening to the Week in Westminster, how Jackie Ashley, Malcolm Rifkind and David Steel all predicted that by next Christmas Tony Blair would still be in Downing St. But as for the state of the polls- they did not hazard a guess. My money would still be on Labour to win next time; the best the Tories can hope for is a hung parliament.

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