Monday, September 03, 2007

Will he or won't he?

Speculation is running wild that Gordon is about to go to the country and ask for a personal mandate.

It is possible that the next few weeks could see the starting gun being fired on an autumn election - late October is probably as far as he'd want to go in terms of an actual date, so the last probable date for announcement is going to be during the Labour conference at the end of this month.

There's no doubt that moves are afoot to put the party on an election footing and that the polls are apparently positive, although recent soundings suggest a cooling of the Labour lead, but we're dealing with probabilities here. I think that an autumn election is a possibility, but only just. The name of the game is to get the party ready to hit the campaign trail whenever the PM decides that the time is right. My money is on a spring campaign to coincide with the 2008 local elections, but nonetheless, the current furore has a purpose in drawing out the Tories. The more that the potential policies from their research groups are exposed, the longer Labour has to attack them, or if they are good ones, lift and implement them. The overall impact of the Tory thought process (such as it is) is reduced if it has to be revealed in a flurry, rather than in a more carefully-managed way.

Actually, the polls are solid enough for Labour and the Tories, but the real losers could be the Liberal Democrats. As always at this point, I have to remind the readers that the LDs traditionally gain support as campaigns remind the electorate that they exist. Dropping to the mid-teens hasn't been a massive problem when it comes to turning the vote out in recent parliamentary elections. The figures currently rattling around - Tory/Lab in the mid-30s and the third party marooned on 15-16% - forecast a yellow massacre come the next election, with only 6-10 MPs surviving the onslaught from the Tories. Naturally, this is, as Peter Snow was wont to say, just a bit of fun, as it takes a stretch of imagination to see the eternally smug David Laws losing his Yeovil seat as the Tories conquer the LD West Country strongholds, but I think that their home counties and London seats are vulnerable to the Tory revival. Locally, the polls predict another narrow win for Gisela Stuart in Edgbaston and a defeat for John Hemming in Yardley as normal service is restored.

This election might be different though, as the choice will be squarely between the Tories and Labour as to who is to govern the country, with little room for the luxury of protest voting. Whether tactical voting will continue in an attempt to keep one or other out of a particular seat is harder to judge - we can expect that the Tories will do the usual reciprocal deal whereby the LDs will run only the thinnest of paper candidates in Edgbaston and the Tories will similarly oblige in Yardley, but I do think that the fair-weather Lib Dems who have defected from the Tories and Labour will feel duty-bound to cast their votes in line with their natural loyalties.

The other LD question is whether Ming the Invisible will continue as party leader. Many more polls like this, despite this being a resumption of normal mid-term trends, and the modernisers like Nick Clegg will feel the chill wind of defeat around their seats and the demand for change could become irresistible. Mind you, if these worst-case scenarios do come to pass, then Ming is guaranteed a front-bench post in the new Liberal Democrat party, possibly under a new Lembit leadership.

Still, all good fun and games in advance of the party conference season.

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