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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.