For some time now, this magazine has taken seriously the possibility that the next British general election will not deliver the kind of resounding majority for the Conservatives that looked inevitable after Labour's catastrophic performance in the European elections in June. Although the Tories are still on course to win a majority, it remains distinctly possible that the election will produce no clear victor.
However, as the leading pollster Peter Kellner suggests on page 14, "Labour optimists" should not get too excited just yet. First, a November poll that put Labour only 6 points behind the Conservatives now looks like an aberration. Second, Kellner argues that those who insist that the opposition needs a double-digit lead to secure an overall majority are wrongly assuming that "the national swing is reflected in the marginal seats the Tories are targeting". He suggests that the Tories might need only a 9 per cent lead in the polls to win an outright majority.
Kellner is correct to suggest that the polls should be treated with caution. "Optimism of the will" is one thing, blind faith another entirely. Yet it cannot be denied that the political landscape has changed considerably since last summer - the Labour leadership issue has been resolved, not because Gordon Brown has impressed as leader, but because his rivals in the party could not gather the support necessary to oust him. As a result, he has begun to look more confident and assured than at any time since his post-accession honeymoon in 2007. In addition, the Tories are starting to be subjected to the kind of forensic scrutiny that is long overdue.
There are signs that the close attention being paid to their policy proposals is making the Tories uncomfortable. David Cameron's cynical entreaties in his New Year message to Liberal Democrat voters suggest that he knows he has not yet "sealed the deal" with that portion of the Liberal
Democrats determined to defeat Labour. These are the people whose support he needs if he is to become prime minister. If the Conservative leader is to be believed, there is "a lot less disagreement than there used to be" between the Tories and the Lib Dems over how to achieve the "progressive aims" of "fairness" and greater equality of opportunity. However, despite Mr Cameron's warm words, voters are yet to be convinced of his party's progressive bona fides. So, too, are the Lib Dems. A spokesman for the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, gave this outreach programme short shrift. "David Cameron seems to be confused about what a fairer Britain means," he said. "For the Liberal Democrats it means cutting taxes for the lowest-paid; for him it means cutting them for millionaires."
The Conservative plans to cut inheritance tax for the country's richest estates are inconsistent with Mr Cameron's declared intention of fashioning policies that "help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich". It is a pity, therefore, that the Lib Dem leader's intentions remain opaque. Mr Clegg remains committed, formally at least, to a policy of "equidistance" from the two other major political parties, a stance undermined by his own party's lack of a single distinctive policy. And he has yet to clarify what he means when he says that, in the event of a hung parliament, the party with the "strongest mandate" should be allowed a first shot at forming a government.
This won't do. Mr Clegg's reticence is unacceptable. It is time for him to come clean and to set out the non-negotiable principles on the basis of which he would enter into coalition with another party. Despite the government's many shortcomings, notably on civil liberties, the Labour Party remains, as James Macintyre suggests on page 28, the "more natural ally" of the Lib Dems. The stakes could not be higher: it may fall to Mr Clegg to resolve the historic "progressive dilemma" in British politics.