The Times has more bad news for the Prime Minister. Its front-page headline proclaims: “Give us any leader but Brown, say voters”.
Nine months at most from a general election, a Populus poll for the Times suggests that 48 per cent of voters believe that “literally anyone” from Labour’s ranks could do better, without naming alternatives. Only a third say that Mr Brown is the best leader available to Labour.
“Without naming alternatives” is the key point, however. Other polls suggest that when alternatives are named (be they Miliband, Johnson, Harman, or whoever), Labour’s poll ratings remain far below those of the Conservatives. (Then again, Polly Toynbee and others are right to remind us of the inevitable “honeymoon period” that all new leaders benefit from, including Gordon Brown in the summer of 2007.)
With or without Brown, things look bad for Labour. But, the other bit from the Times piece that sticks out is the graphic on the front page, which shows the opposition party’s support ahead of various landmark general elections: in September 1978 (Thatcher’s Tories at 48 per cent), in September 1996 (Blair’s New Labour at 50 per cent) and, today, in September 2009 (Cameron’s Conservatives at 41 per cent). As the accompanying text helpfully adds:
The Tories are, however, doing less well than Labour in opposition in 1996 (on 50 per cent) or the Tories in 1978 (48 per cent).
So isn’t there still a chance of a hung parliament (as I have long suspected there might be)? The public, according to Populus, disagrees:
The number thinking that there will be a hung parliament has fallen by 5 points to 20 per cent. Some 17 per cent (up 2 points) think that Labour will win an overall majority.
But if, as in previous years, and as the Times concedes, the opposition party loses support in the final months before the general election, where will that leave Cameron’s Conservatives next May? I’m no psephologist, but isn’t a Tory opposition that’s polling in the mid-to-late 30s in the run-up to an election contested under a first-past-the-post system with a bias towards Labour heading for a hung parliament?
As Leo McKinstry argued so persuasively and forcefully in the New Statesman back in May:
The national opinion polls are, of course, bleak for the government, but then they also were at the time of the European elections in 2004, a year before Blair’s third triumph. The average Tory lead of 10-12 per cent in recent months might look healthy, but, in truth, if replicated at a general election, it would be barely enough to win. After three successive landslide defeats, the task facing the Conservatives at the next election is daunting.
Taking account of boundary changes, they have to gain at least 112 seats to form an overall majority in the Commons. That would require a 7.1 swing, the equivalent of an 11 per cent lead over Labour in the national British vote, far beyond the scale of anything achieved by a previous Tory opposition.
It is a remarkable historical fact that since the end of the Victorian age, the Conservatives have only once turned out a government which possessed a working majority in parliament. That occurred in 1970, when Ted Heath — defying conventional wisdom and the polls — defeated Harold Wilson’s government, though even then the swing was 4.7 per cent, significantly lower than that needed by Cameron.
Every other Tory victory since 1900 has been against a dying coalition or Labour government which had lost its majority, or never held one.
So, despite today’s Populus poll in the Times, the verdict of a piece I co-wrote with my colleague James Macintyre in June still stands:
In the mid-1990s, the late Roy Jenkins compared Tony Blair’s mission in leading New Labour to victory to that of an elderly and frail butler carrying a priceless vase from one side of a room to another. Today, Labour is down but not out. And it should be repeated: the Tories have yet to seal the deal with the British electorate. David Cameron must hope that his fragile party doesn’t slip and stumble before election day.