Labour begins the year ahead but Cameron is still preferred to Miliband

First poll of the year gives Labour a 12-point lead but Cameron is eight points ahead as "the best prime minister".

If, as Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics then two and a half years is an eternity. But that hasn't stopped commentators speculating about the result of the 2015 general election. In a notable piece for the Daily Telegraph just before the new year, former Tory MP and ConservativeHome executive editor Paul Goodman suggested that David Cameron should abandon any hope of winning a majority (an argument I made after Nick Clegg killed the boundary changes last August). His piece prompted a response from the energetic Conservative chairman Grant Shapps who, unsurprisingly, insisted that the race was from over and one from his ConHome colleague Tim Montgomerie, who argued that a Conservative majority, while unlikely, remained possible.

The first YouGov poll of the year offers evidence to support both arguments. Labour is on 43 per cent, 12 points ahead of the Conservatives (compared to a lead of just two at the start of 2012), a lead that, on a uniform swing, would see Ed Miliband enter Downing Street with a majority of 116 seats.

Poll leads, of course, can come and go. In February 1981, Michael Foot led Margaret Thatcher by 16 points. Yet aided by the "Falklands bounce" and the splintering of the centre-left vote, the Conservatives went on to win a majority of 144 seats in 1983. But even if the Tories chip away at Labour's lead in advance of the next election (as they surely will), it's hard to see them remaining the single largest party, let alone winning a majority. The Lib Dems' veto of the boundary changes means that Labour needs a lead of just one point on a uniform swing to win a majority; the Tories, by contrast, require one of seven. Since fewer people tend to vote in Labour constituencies, the party is able to win more seats with the same number of votes.

In the face of these daunting odds, one of the principal reasons why the Tories remain optimistic about their chances is David Cameron's consistent lead over Ed Miliband as the best prime minister. While Cameron's lead has narrowed since a year ago, when it stood at 24 points (41-17), he retains an eight-point advantage (33-25. Nick Clegg is on five per cent with "don't know" leading on 38 per cent). In the wake of his bravura conference speech, Miliband reduced Cameron's lead to four (31-27) but the gap soon widened again.

But this is a parliamentary system, you say, why should we care? The answer is that personal ratings are frequently a better long-term indicator of the election result than voting intentions. Labour often led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance (sometimes by as much as 24 points), but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. A more recent example is the 2011 Scottish parliament election, which saw Alex Salmond ranked above Iain Gray even as Labour led in the polls. The final result, of course, was an SNP majority.

In an attempt to exploit Cameron's advantage over Miliband, the Tories intend to run a highly presidential campaign, asking the voters: do you want David Cameron or Ed Miliband as your prime minister? It's hard to see this overriding factors such as the collapse in the Lib Dem vote (which will gift Labour victory in scores of Tory-Labour marginals) but it is in Cameron, who remains more popular than his party, that Tory hopes continue to reside.

Thirty three per cent of voters believe David Cameron would make the best prime minister, compared to 25 per cent for Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.