That the election that we now know will take place on May 6th is competitive at all is remarkable in itself. And the fact that there is any doubt about the result owes much to the weaknesses of David Cameron and the strengths of Gordon Brown. The extent to which Cameron overcomes his weaknesses and Brown plays to his strengths will determine the outcome of the election. But this must also be an election where politicians show that politics matters again, after the recent expenses scandals.
The opinion polls give a mixed picture: Labour stalwarts may prefer ICM’s 4-point Tory lead in the Guardian to YouGov’s 10-point advantage in The Sun. But both suggest a tighter result than the 15-20 point lead of polls last year. Cameron lost ground by retreating to his Tory comfort zone when he should have stuck with his initial instincts to regain the centreground won by Tony Blair in the last three elections. The result was that – with the possible exception of last week’s national insurance battle – a Tory policy blitz promised for after Christmas proved a damp squib. Meanwhile, despite a depleted party budget, Labour proved a sharper than expected campaigner and has played well to the economic strengths of the Brown-Darling team (so much so that Brown has said that in the – still unlikely – result of a Labour victory, Darling would remain as Chancellor).
But all that could change in the next four weeks. The novelty of the TV debates could be a game changer in three ways. First, if Cameron allows the sneering petulance that has occasionally reared its ugly head at PMQs to come through, he will turn off middle ground voters. Second, if Brown doesn’t manage to mix his undoubted gravitas with a lighter touch, he will lose to Cameron and Clegg. And, finally if Nick Clegg does as well as Vince Cable in the Chancellors’ debate, he could affect the result in some marginals to the detriment of the two larger parties.
For the two main parties, however, this will be an inauspicious election, as the combination of Westminster expenses and economic uncertainty could drive record numbers of voters either to abstain or to vote for fringe parties and independents. It is that as much as the polls that suggests a hung parliament remains the most likely result. And the big challenge for all the parties in the weeks ahead is to make people realise that politics matters and makes a difference to their lives. Whatever the result, this election campaign can only be judged a success if it switches people back to politics.
This post first appeared on the Public Finance blog today.