Tory majority, or Labour lead in a hung parliament? What a way to kick off . . .

The election campaign begins.

The choppers are out in force, with aerial pics of the Brown motorcade making the one-mile drive back from Buckingham Palace. My former colleagues at Sky News are in "split-screen" mode, with David Cameron on one half, gesticulating and pontificating, and a locked-off shot of a solitary policeman standing outside 10 Downing Street.

So what's the mood inside the bunker? A Brown aide tells me that the PM has a spring in his step. "He's at his best when faced with a tough challenge but he knows he has a plan, so he's fine," says the aide.

And I can believe it. I doubt that the Prime Minister will be punching the back of the front seat of his Jaguar this morning. Not if he's got a copy of the Guardian inside the car with him. The paper's latest ICM poll shows the Tory lead over Labour cut to 4 points for the first time in almost two years -- a lead that, if replicated on 6 May, would leave Labour as the largest single party in the House of Commons.

The Guardian's Julian Glover writes:

On a uniform national swing, these figures could leave Labour 30 seats short of an overall majority. Even if the Tories perform better than average in marginal seats -- as most people expect -- David Cameron would struggle to establish a secure parliamentary basis for power.

Amazing, eh? Who'd have predicted it? Not the great and the good of the anti-Brown lobby or commentariat. And certainly not the arch-critic of all things Brown, John Rentoul of the Independent on Sunday. Only a few weeks ago, John was telling me he had no doubt in his mind that Cameron's Conservatives would win a comfortable, double-digit parliamentary majority. This morning, according to a Paul Waugh tweet, John said:

Nobody, certainly not me, expected Gordon Brown to be in the position he is today.

Not quite. For the last time (I promise!), let me refer you all to the rather prescient column that James Macintyre and I wrote for the NS in June, in the wake of Labour's disastrous performance in the Euro elections, in which we referred to the "Tories' precarious electoral position" and concluded:

If . . . the Brown government can concentrate the country's attention on public services and public spending, Labour may well still stand a fighting chance of a hung parliament at next year's general election.

It's a suggestion, a prediction, that James and I have long stood by. Bring on 6 May!

UPDATE: Before I'm denounced by Tory trolls "below the line" as a "Labour spin doctor", let me apologise for failing to acknowledge above that there is, in fact, another reputable poll out today -- by YouGov for the Sun -- which tells a somewhat different story. The YouGov survey shows the Tories have reopened a 10-point lead over Labour -- which is, of course, the margin they need to maintain in order to win an overall majority next month.

So is the ICM poll just a "rogue", as some Tory sympathisers have suggested? Who knows? Don't forget: as a wise man once said, rogue polls tend to be polls you don't like. And even the YouGov survey shows an increase in the Labour share (from 29 to 31 per cent). So I still think there's reason for Brown, and Labour supporters, to be cheerful this morning.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn bids for the NHS to rescue Labour

Ahead of tomorrow's by-elections, Corbyn damned Theresa May for putting the service in a "state of emergency".

Whenever Labour leaders are in trouble, they seek political refuge in the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn, whose party faces potential defeat in tomorrow’s Copeland and Stoke by-elections, upheld this iron law today. In the case of the former, Labour has already warned that “babies will die” as a result of the downgrading of the hospital. It is crude but it may yet prove effective (it worked for No to AV, after all).

In the chamber, Corbyn assailed May for cutting the number of hospital beds, worsening waiting times, under-funding social care and abolishing nursing bursaries. The Labour leader rose to a crescendo, damning the Prime Minister for putting the service in a “a state of emergency”. But his scattergun attack was too unfocused to much trouble May.

The Prime Minister came armed with attack lines, brandishing a quote from former health secretary Andy Burnham on cutting hospital beds and reminding Corbyn that Labour promised to spend less on the NHS at the last election (only Nixon can go to China). May was able to boast that the Tories were providing “more money” for the service (this is not, of course, the same as “enough”). Just as Corbyn echoed his predecessors, so the Prime Minister sounded like David Cameron circa 2013, declaring that she would not “take lessons” from the party that presided over the Mid-Staffs scandal and warning that Labour would “borrow and bankrupt” the economy.

It was a dubious charge from the party that has racked up ever-higher debt but a reliably potent one. Labour, however, will be satisfied that May was more comfortable debating the economy or attacking the Brown government, than she was defending the state of the NHS. In Copeland and Stoke, where Corbyn’s party has held power since 1935 and 1950, Labour must hope that the electorate are as respectful of tradition as its leader.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.