UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A free vote on fees is the only way forward

I don't usually blog on the same topic so regularly. But the tuition fees "dilemma" for the Liberal Democrats is becoming a touchstone issue for the coalition and its junior partner. It is a key test of whether power sharing is workable, an argument crucial to winning next May's referendum on a fairer voting system. Yet today, there is still uncertainty over how Lib Dem Ministers and backbench Lib Dem MPs will vote on tuition fees - in short whether Government Ministers will back Government policy. Shouldn't be up for debate, should it?

I've uncovered a bit more of what the Secretary of State responsible for Universities, Vince Cable actually said yesterday - and it's pretty shocking. Asked how he would vote, Cable said:

"If we all abstain, then that is the position I am happy to go along with... there is an option that we all abstain together and we are considering that. My own personal instincts, partly because I am the Secretary of State responsible for universities and partly because I think the policy is right are very much to vote for it. But we have got to vote as a group, collectively, and we are discussing how we do that".

Not good enough. This is not the kind of grown up, decisive leadership you would expect of a Government Minister in charge of delivering a key policy reform. If you adopt something as policy, you believe in it. If you believe in it, you argue passionately to persuade those who do not and to bring them on board. Every day that passes with senior Lib Dems hedging their bets, the more it sounds as if Lib Dems have reluctantly gone along with a policy they do not really support. You only need to look at Gordon Brown's premiership to see how damaging it is to dither whilst you wait to see which way the political wind is blowing.

Thankfully, some Lib Dems are talking sense. Lord Willis, former Higher Education spokesperson for the party, today said this on the Today programme:

"The reality is that either we bite the bullet and believe that the proposals are the ones to take us forward in terms of higher education or we don't. They do take us forward and it's time the Liberal Democrats now simply got on board and said, 'Well, let us back them; let us sell them'".

This is absolutely right. But a decision needs to be made fast. Looking at the detail of the Coalition Agreement, abstention does not seem to be an option. It says that Lib Dems can abstain "if the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept". But the response to the Government is one that Liberal Democrat Ministers have accepted, so they cannot exercise any right to abstain.

It's a moment for decisive leadership. Lib Dem Ministers need to say they wholeheartedly endorse the proposals and will vote in favour. They then need to say that they will offer a free vote, as some sources are suggesting, for Lib Dem backbench MPs. And then strongly sell the policy to get as many to vote for it as possible. There is no point whipping the party into a ridiculous position that then requires an act of political contortionism to maintain, as Nick Clegg did on the Lib Dem position on the EU constitution referendum.

Mass abstention will be seen as a cowardly derelection of duty by the already disenfranchised students and by the wider public who expect Lib Dems to be constructive partners in coalition government. The only way forward is for a free vote on fees - and for Lib Dem MPs to at least vote boldly as decision-makers. For or against. I believe they should vote for the fees package. But they should at least make a decision - sitting on the fence is not an option.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Don't sit on your hands

In my last blog, I argued that both the Lib Dems and the Tories needed to make a stronger pitch to the public to explain why coalition government is a different kind of government. To explain why difficult situations arise such as the decision the Lib Dems will soon face over whether to vote or abstain in the tuition fees debate.

The Coalition Agreement gives Lib Dems wriggle room. It allowed the Lib Dems to abstain from the vote in the event that was necessary. Today, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have refused to say whether they will vote for a policy of the Government for which they bear direct responsibility as Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State responsible for Universities.

To abstain would be a outright lunacy. It beggars belief that the key Ministers responsible are even considering it. It may be in the letter of the Coalition Agreement that Clegg and Cable signed up for in May this year. But it is nowhere near the spirit of what they signed up for. They signed up to become responsible, decision-making partners in government. Not part-timers, reserving the right to sit on their hands when the difficult decisions came along.

This is a difficult decision. Tremendously so. But it is also a moment when the Lib Dems need to be bold and implement the strategy I suggested they should adopt of vociferously explaining why coalition government means the junior partner cannot always implement its own policies; explaining why compromises need to be made; explaining why Labour should be ashamed of its hollow criticisms when it let down students time and again when they were a majority government wielding enormous freedom and power.

Abstaining will gain nothing. It will make the party and its MPs look ridiculous. It will not for one moment appease students protesting loudly against this Government policy. And it will achieve nothing: it will not stop the policy, it will not make Lib Dems look student friendly. And it will not be the first time that abstention will be a tempting option when Lib Dem manifesto commitments are not adopted - what next for control orders, for example? The Lib Dems cannot pick and choose which Government policies to support. And if the Lib Dems cannot, then their Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State responsible for the policy certainly cannot either.

It's also crucial to the referendum on the Alternative Vote system due next summer. The living example of coalition government presented to the electorate in May must be one where it can be demonstrated that coalition government works. That it is not a messy substitute for majority government, where coalition partners pick and choose, abstain here and absolve all responsibility there. That will not persuade the public that the coalition governments which a fairer voting system may deliver will in turn deliver stable, united government.

Far better to go for it. Vote strongly for. Explain why it's the right decision. Gain some conviction as a party that is a full-time partner in Government. A party that has moved on from being a party of protest on the sidelines.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Now they are six: tell us what coalition really means

The Coalition Government is six months old. And this week has perhaps been the toughest week of the coalition so far for the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg’s stand-in act at Prime Minister’s Questions coincided horribly with a student protest against tuition fees that turned ugly and violent outside the Tories’ London HQ. Clegg was forced into a squirming justification of ditching a cast-iron pledge to do away with tuition fees in favour of a policy that will see the overall cap on tuition fees rise from £6,000 to £9,000. And for him and each of his MPs that signed a pledge not to increase tuition fees during the election campaign, it’s all feeling decidedly awkward.

For 70 years a party of opposition, less generously – a party of protest, it must come as an almighty shock to be at the receiving end of such vociferous protest. And all the harder for it to be from part of your core vote. For election after election, the Lib Dems have courted the student vote. Electoral success for them has been all about incremental progress, of wooing specific types of voter – students, building the South West strongholds of Somerset and Cornwall, those opposed to Iraq and the liberal public sector.

Wednesday’s attack on Tory HQ may have grabbed the headlines, but the anger of most of the 50,000 strong student demonstration was directed at the Lib Dems. You gave an empty promise, and you let us down.

The Lib Dem’s tuition fees pledge was not wise. It was a hangover from a party still wired up for protest politics, chirping from the safety of third party opposition, and not one of a party expecting to be in government. The Tories and Labour made no commitments whatsoever on tuition fees – both pledging to wait for the Browne Review and then decide. The Lib Dems went for it, pledging to phase out tuition fees altogether in 6 years. Bold, myopic, stupid? Probably a bit of all three, but then many a party has foolishly stuck to a policy that its core vote is rather keen on.

But the 2010 election was not any election for the Lib Dems. There was a strong chance of a hung parliament – this blog was predicting that outcome as far back as March, well before the manifestoes were published. The Lib Dem manifesto should have been checked and checked again for future U-turn clangers. In fairness to Clegg, he did try and water down the commitment to abolishing tuition fees at his party conference in 2009. Clegg is not the first Lib Dem leader to feel shackled by the socks and sandles brigade, but he is perhaps the leader who feels it most acutely.

So much for the tactics, what of the policy? I have always happened to believe that tuition fees are right. I do not subscribe to the view that university should be free for all. Our universities are horrendously underfunded. University lecturers are disgracefully underpaid. And our universities are struggling to compete internationally – there are only five British universities in the world’s top 50 universities – which they must do to retain British innovation in research and developing our brightest talent for the future. How tuition fees are levied then becomes the question – and the compromise that has arisen out of the Browne Review is as good an answer as I’ve seen.

Much has been made of the progressive nature of the proposals. It has allowed Clegg to say he has retained his progressive ambition on fees, an unconvincing act of considerable political contortionism. The proposals are more progressive, and the raising of the salary threshold at which repayment starts (from £15,000 to £21,000) is a significant move. There is a rather bizarre policy to penalise students who repay early with a 5% levy charged on higher repayments that I frankly don’t understand. It strikes me as fair to repay the education that you’ve had, much less fair to be charged extra for paying off your debt more quickly.

The rise in the threshold is to be welcomed, but £21,000 is still a wage that can be difficult to live on – especially in London – so I think there is scope for that threshold to be higher. But it is still fairer than the current system where students on £15,000 in London are being whacked as soon as they graduate. Some credit needs to go to the Lib Dems for this progressive element, but let’s not cheer too loudly – Browne himself proposed this and this recommendation is simply being adopted.

Other elements of the proposal are good – more help for part time students and an increase in some maintenance grants – but they’re being cheered rather more loudly given the government’s need for the Lib Dems to be able to claim some influence here.

What we have is a reasonable proposition for making university students contribute financially to the education they receive. The overall goal of which should be to have higher quality, better funded universities. But the government is yet to be clear about whether the hikes in fees will actually just be changing the source of funding from the Exchequer to funding by students. This reform needs to be about more than who pays for universities, and more about the level of funding they receive. The Government has so far been evasive about the level of cuts in direct funding for higher education from the Exchequer. It is fair to expect students to make a contribution to their education. It is not fair for the government then to be off the hook and for its own contribution to shrink to insignificant levels as a result. These proposals need to be accompanied by a significant and targeted government commitment to funding higher education from the Exchequer.

Onto the tactics. To the cries that the Lib Dems have sold out and signed up to a Tory policy, Clegg did rather well at PMQs. It is quite different for the second party in a coalition government (to be clear, one whose manifesto didn’t win an election) to abandon an election pledge as a result of comprise coalition politics, as opposed to a party that won an election by over a hundred seats and then ratted on its pledge. Lib Dem MPs, whatever their division on this policy, should sock it to Labour for having broken their own promises in 1997 and 2001 on university funding when it had thumping majorities. That they did so was a cast-iron breaking of a manifesto commitment by a majority government based on political calculation - a democratic betrayal. The fact that the Lib Dems cannot implement every part of their manifesto as a junior partner in coalition is of a quite different nature, and we should say so more unitedly, more often and more loudly. As the new Lib Dem President, Tim Farron, has said, the Lib Dem manifesto became a negotiating document with the Tories – not a blueprint for government that the Lib Dems could hold to.

So, what next? I think it was wrong of the Lib Dems to include the pledge to abolish fees in the 2010 manifesto – ham-fisted politically and just wrong on policy terms. In backtracking on something they should never have promised, they need to salvage what dignity they can from seriously pissing off a large proportion of their core vote. Three things need to happen.

· David Cameron needs to throw Nick Clegg a lifeline, and spell out in greater detail what coalition government is and how it works. No more vagueness on “new politics”, a country unused to the sharing of power in national politics needs to hear a clear narrative on why a coalition is different, that sacrifices need to be made on both sides as the two parties compromise and agree – and he needs to demonstrate that the Tories are taking hits as well.

· Nick Clegg needs to develop more of a Lib Dem thrust to the coalition. If it looks like the Lib Dems have just become an annex of the Tories, they will be decimated at the next election on two fronts. If the government is unpopular – they will be whacked. If they seem like Tories – they will become irrelevant (why vote for the Lib Dems if they’re “just the Tories”. And if they fail to be a distinctive progressive voice, Labour will be able to camp solidly and attractively on Lib Dem territory and pick up plenty of Lib Dem votes. Clegg himself needs to understand that coalition politics cannot be explained with vacuous phrases such as “new politics”. His key message for the next five years needs to be what the Lib Dems are adding to this Coalition Government. And once he has that message he needs to say it repeatedly.

· The Lib Dems need to cash in on the Coalition Agreement that allowed Lib Dem MPs to abstain in the Commons vote on fees. Better still, allow a free vote amongst Lib Dem MPs so they’re not seen just to be sitting on their hands (as dangerous as them voting for fees and reneging on their pledges). Allow a free vote, and let Clegg, Cable and Alexander work their socks off to persuade as many Lib Dem MPs as possible to vote for the proposals.

Six months old this week, the coalition needs to learn some lessons this week. The policy is, I believe, the right one. But the tactics of coalition government are not there yet. Both the Lib Dems and the Tories need to move fast to develop a deeper coalition narrative on how it operates and explain how the way it operates allows the Lib Dems to be a distinctive force within that coalition. Then, Nick Clegg, go on and show that distinctive force at work. If not, we risk losing not just our core vote – but the reason why we exist.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

He missed his moment

For the first time since Tony Blair swept to the leadership in 1994, the Labour Party today will elect its new leader. It appears to have gone down to the wire. And in the battle of the brothers, Ed Miliband now seems most likely to snatch the crown from his brother and long-running favourite, David.

This would be a remarkable turnaround. It would be a staggering psychological and political blow to David Miliband, who has been leader-in-waiting since at least 2007. And in a contest that has failed to spark and where it has been difficult to discern major policy differences between either the Milibands or their other opponents, it would reveal boldness – or the lack of it – as the decisive factor in this leadership race.

It was never clear that Ed Miliband would even run for the leadership. Although it is reported that Ed told David he would run as far back as January, it was a shock that Ed decided to run at all. It was a bold decision, and one that stands in contrast with David’s reluctance to seize many moments during Gordon Brown’s troubled premiership.

We now know that David Miliband sought Tony Blair’s advice on whether to run against Gordon Brown in 2007. He decided against it: perhaps fearing defeat, demotion and splitting the party whilst still in office - or perhaps he just thought Brown too big a giant to slay. There was also the botched banana coup the following summer, when David effectively challenged Gordon Brown in a Guardian article. It was “not a time for a novice”, and David Miliband retreated again. And, the following summer, when James Purnell explosively resigned as the local election polls closed in 2009 – Gordon Brown’s most perilous moment – David Miliband once again stepped back from the brink. And bottling it a third time brought him considerable opprobrium.

Perhaps he didn’t want to fight an election he thought was a dead loss. Perhaps (and more likely) he thought Labour would look ridiculous for installing a third leader in a single Parliament. Perhaps he heeded Michael Heseltine’s lesson that “he who wields the dagger, never seizes the crown”.

But the Heseltine lesson is not set in stone. A lack of boldness in seizing the leadership also raises serious doubts about seriousness of desire and seriousness as a politician. Are they someone who genuinely seizes the moment? And it also risks letting your moment pass you by. Ask Michael Portillo, who retreated from challenging John Major in 1995, and then was defeated early on in a contest that elected the disastrous Iain Duncan Smith back in 2001. A dead-cert leader-in-waiting saw his hopes disintegrate. The party was distrustful, of course - but the moment had passed.

We now know from Blair’s memoirs, that he realised in 1994 that Gordon Brown wasn’t bold enough or radical enough to be trusted with the Labour leadership. Until around 1994, he claims he had always been content with being the second-in-command. Perhaps Ed Miliband had a similar journey with his brother.

So, if Ed Miliband wins today, it will be a victory for boldness. It wasn’t a certainty that he would stand. It was even less certain that he would win. Labour’s electoral system is a quirky one, and one that produced a shock victory for Harriet Harman in the deputy leadership contest in 2007. But it will be the result of a considerable boldness and skill if Ed seizes the crown today. And a boldness that might just worry the Coalition Government.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The long game

Some under-reported, but significant news as we begin party conference season. Leaderless Labour and the Coalition Conservatives are neck and neck in the polls. The YouGov snapshot earlier this week shows the Tories and Labour the closest they have been since Gordon Brown called off the election that never was in 2007. Tories on 41 (respectable), Labour on 39 (impressive and yet to have its new leader bounce), Lib Dems on 12 (well into "pretend to hold your nerve but actually be quite scared " kind of stuff).

It is surprising that this poll hasn't had more coverage. It comes alongside falling approval ratings for the coalition as a whole. Back in July, it had an already low approval rating of +4%. Now it stands at -4%. Just four months in. And facing a still leaderless, yet to re-launch Labour Party. As I said in my blog before the election, Labour without Brown and its old guard figures will quickly present itself to the voters as a much re-energised, more attractive outfit. Impressive as the unity has been since Cameron and Clegg “got it together”, the Coalition is yet to face its real tests. It’s been the honeymoon period, the four months grace whilst the Opposition sorts itself out.

It is now reasonable to speculate as to the kind of lead David (or maybe, just maybe, Ed) Miliband will be able to generate once they take over next week. We'll see a few party conference poll bounces over the next few weeks, but - once the various crinkles have been ironed out - I would expect Labour to open up a fairly consistent poll lead of between three and five points over the autumn and into next year.

All of this will weigh heavily on Nick Clegg's mind at party conference this week. He is likely to face some criticism, but overall I expect Lib Dems to behave themselves. The novelty of power will keep the criticisms manageable for now. Poll ratings in the teens are fine with a general election seemingly five years away. Plenty of time to devise what Lord Steel has called an "exit strategy" from the Coalition Government, they may think.

But in terms of pure political calculation for his party’s survival, Nick Clegg may not need to worry. He has two strategies – the “annex strategy” and the “AV strategy” as he plays his long game. However committed he is to the Coalition Government and to governing, the party will be calculating its hand very carefully.

In the annex strategy, everything depends on the strength of the Labour lead. If David Miliband opens up and maintains as much as a five point lead (but no bigger) over the Tories, the UK is likely to remain in a state of flux and could, at a General Election, end up with a second Hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party. The Lib Dems get a shoe-ing, lose another 10 MPs - but (what the hell) still find themselves as king-makers. Enter Clegg and the Liberal Democrats once again as chief propper-uppers of major parties who didn't quite squeak home.

Ten years for the Lib Dems in Government? Don't rule it out.

Much of course depends on how the Conservatives fare over the course of this Parliament. Labour's gains have been at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative poll rating has not collapsed. It is to a great extent in Nick Clegg's interests to keep it that way. I am not saying that he will be glad to lose support from his own party to Labour - or that the Lib Dems should forfeit their identity and define their existence by the extent to which they can flit from being the annex of one party to another. But with the risk that he has taken, the Lib Dems are safer if the Tory vote continues to hold up against Labour's - that the gap between the two major parties remains tight. And that an overall majority for either party is impossible. An "annex strategy", you might call it. And it is a strategy that, if followed, keeps the Lib Dems riding the bucking bronco of the polls - feeling every kick, rise, fall... and wondering when it's best just to give up and fall off.

The “annex strategy” assumes that the number of seats you have in power in Cabinet are more important than number of seats you have influencing Parliament. The AV strategy places all hope and the future of the Coalition Government on next month’s referendum on changing the voting system. The Lib Dems would have won 22 more seats had the 2010 election been fought under the voting system they'll be campaigning for at the referendum next summer. And it's why the AV campaign matters so much next summer. It will be the crunch point. Lose it, and the usefulness of the Coalition to Lib Dems becomes less obvious. (You already feel as though many Lib Dems are willing to sacrifice coalition with the Tories only for the prize of securing electoral reform). Lose it, and the annex strategy becomes less short-termist, more the harsh reality that you have to face up to. You can't ask the country for electoral reform again. And you’re facing up to your party becoming an irrelevance, defined by its collaboration and not by the values it stands for in its own right. Win it, and you will have demonstrated your seriousness in being a coalition partner and will fight future on elections under a system that will give you what first-past-the-post lacked: Cabinet seats but not at the expense of seats in Parliament. The Holy Grail.

Of course, the Lib Dems will currently be following a mixture of the two strategies. Play the annex strategy, whilst you wait and see how the AV strategy pans out. Which is why, whatever the polls are saying now, the key strain for the coalition will come when the AV referendum result is known next May. Lose it, and the AV strategy is dead. You could be noble, grown-up and hang on – but not if Miliband kills of the annex strategy by opening up a poll lead that suggests Labour is on course for governing without the need for another Brokeback Coalition. More likely, the Lib Dems will withdraw from the coalition at the moment when its usefulness has evapourated but in a way that presents itself as the re-awakening of the Liberal Democrats in disagreement with the Tories - and not as withdrawal through self-interest. It may be so risky in itself, that they don't do it - no matter how bad the polls look. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It will all depend on the mood at the time.

AV and DM. Surely four letters that will define the long game that the Liberal Democrats must play.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Return of the Return of Politics?

I haven't blogged since the General Election. I fear too that I haven't properly commented since I was mistaken in believing that the Liberal Democrats wouldn't go into a full blown coalition with the Conservatives. I thought they would plump for a government of national unity, supporting the Tories piecemeal on vital economic reforms, and keep their own counsel on the rest of the agenda. I couldn't see enough common ground. The divisions and name-calling of the election seemed too raw and too real to make a coalition possible.

That it happened was down to the sheer desire and determination of Cameron and Clegg to make workable government happen. Cameron desperately wanted stable government. Clegg desperately wanted a stake in government. So, over a hundred days into the coalition, it seems strange to think of any other outcome. But hung parliaments are rare in this country, and we were in uncharted waters. And even now, although the transformation and sense of shared unity and purpose has been impressive, it will clearly be a massive task to keep this coalition together and effective.

So, we've had some return of politics. But the politics we have today is also unrecognisable for my generation. A coalition for the Conservatives for the first time in their modern history. A gigantic leg-up for the Lib Dems after an intially disappointing showing at the polls. And a Labour Party shorn of its old guard and about to conclude its first leadership election since Tony Blair swept to power in 1994. It's a return to politics, but not as we know it.

My blog title was initally conceived of as a plea - a plea for the return of politics in the sense of genuine engagement, debate, opposition and connection with the voters. I believed that the large majorities of the Labour governments of 1997, 2001 and even 2005 had the effect of creating impotent opposition and a sense that government could do what it liked. A sense that an initially unbalanced electoral system - itself a process that discourages engagement - delivered a government that was even more distant from the people. I also felt that the fag end of Gordon Brown's government was distant from the people through its irrelevance, its lack of ideas and its dwindling public support.

So now, our politics is ground level again. The issues are stark: tough decisions on the economy, on cuts, on the state versus society, on conservatism versus progressive politics. The coalition government will always be on a knife edge. It has harsh critics both within its main parties and without. This is now a five year bare knuckle fight.

And it's a fight that will only begin properly next week, when Labour elects its new leader. David Miliband, who will be elected on Wednesday, will be the final point in the return of politics for this Parliament. We've had the stunning shock of a coalition government being successfully assembled in a week. We've had the honeymoon. Now it's down to the real business of street fighting politics. And Party Conference season. Story of this Parliament? The Tories will have their sights set on seeking a mandate to govern alone. The Lib Dems want to define themselves within this coalition, and avoid becoming an irrelevant annex to another party. And Labour, defeated as it was, has nevertheless lived to fight another day.

So, politics is back. But it's all very different. Phew.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Predictions, predictions

The result itself, well... in the end, I was pretty close to the actual result.

My prediction:

A Hung Parliament. Conservative Party short of an overall majority by 20 seats.
Conservatives with the most votes and the most seats.

The result:

A Hung Parliament. Conservatives short of a majority by 19.
Conservatives with most votes and most seats.

The BBC/ITV/Sky exit poll was remarkably accurate, despite having estimated a very low total for the Lib Dems, and showed very little deviation from the final result.

What we have learned, though, is that the pollsters must look again at the impact that the debates have on opinion polls. It seems likely now that the Lib Dem bounce was entirely false, or almost entirely false. Were the polls just reflecting excitement and not intention to vote Lib Dem? Or did the Lib Dem support crash in response to a fatal pincer movement from Labour and the Conservatives whose "Vote Clegg, get...." warnings managed to pull voters back from the brink of voting Lib Dem. Whichever it is, and the two may amount to the same thing, both the pollsters and the Lib Dems need to work it out

Brave new world

These are strange, exciting political times. For the first time since 1974, the UK is in the highly unusual position of having to grapple with a hung parliament. Election night was a strange one. The initial exit poll seemed highly unusual, forecasting a low vote for the Liberal Democrats but unsurprisingly forecasting a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party.

It turned out to be right. The Tories fell well short of an overall majority as the largest party, and now the horsetrading begins. Nick Clegg rightly made an early statement giving Cameron the first right to seek to form a government. In the circumstances, he could not have done much else. But what are the main considerations now for Clegg and the Liberal Democrats?

1. Coalition with Brown out of the question. This is the one absolute known unknown. There is no way that Clegg will prop up Brown. It would be electoral suicide and would quickly be labelled as a "coalition of losers". The coalition would also come under instant and vehement opposition from the press. Brown and Clegg do not get on - arguably worse than Cameron and Brown. It would also empower a Conservative Party that, despite all Labour's difficulties, failed to convince the British electorate on May 6th. I suspect, also, that Labour will not want a deal either. They will want quickly now to move on from the Brown era and install a new and more popular leader.

2. Not enough common ground with Cameron? Clegg and other senior Lib Dems will have war-gamed the outcomes from a hung parliament, and an offer from Cameron will clearly have been the key rehearsal. They may have been surprised by how far Cameron went yesterday. But the reality is there are very real differences between the Lib Dems and the Tories; and the important thing for a coalition government is where they do not agree. They do not agree on Europe and Clegg could not support a deal which sees a European Sovereignty Bill go through. Nor could they credibly shift their position on immigration or Trident. There are also differences, but not quite as severe, on aspects of taxation policy for example on the Tory married couples allowance. The differences are such that there must be significant compromises on both sides.

Neither is likely to do that; Cameron making the point that he deserves the right to implement the majority of his programme, whilst allowing some Lib Dem policies to be implemented. Clegg, too, can hardly turn round to all those who voted Lib Dem on May 6th and say that Trident or voting reform no longer matter. Both risk considerably disenfranchising their voters by suddenly crossing out parts of their manifesto. Instead, they need to judge what are the central aspects that they can give up without losing their grass-roots support. Europe, voting reform and immigration are not in that category.

3. A high price on voting reform? Clegg will be under huge pressure to deliver voting reform. A totemic issue for the Lib Dems, it is also seen as the central demand if there is ever a need for another party to enter a coalition with the Lib Dems. This is the dream situation for all those demanding electoral reform. But the Tories will not offer anything meaningful - yesterday's opening gambit was too low and will not satisfy anyone in the Lib Dems, least of all Clegg. But the Lib Dems need to be careful. Voting reform is not the key issue for the public. There is a real risk that they may risk appearing to be slavishly pursuing narrow party interest and ignoring the overwhelming demand to form a coalition in the national interest to tackle the more urgent problem of the economy.

In all his demands on voting reform, Clegg must remember that it is by no means clear whether a referendum would be won. And there is a real offer of power here on the table. If one of the key arguments in favour of PR is that it delivers coalition government; it may seem ridiculous to turn it down to secure that very outcome via a more circuitous, and by no means guaranteed, route.

4. Cabinet seats and a stake in government? It seems that these are not off the table. They offer the chance for real power and must be considered seriously. It does carry significant risk, though. The risk is that the Lib Dems would share a stake in the difficult decisions that the Conservatives now face. Being in government right now is probably a time when most would be pretty sanguine about their chances of being able to take popular decisions. The Tories need the Lib Dems - that's clear - but they will secretly be attracted to the possibility of sharing the blame and the difficult decisions with another party. The Lib Dems must balance the chance to implement some of their policies and to raise their credibility after being seen to be in government, with the reality of unpopularity that comes with power. But to turn down power may make many wonder what on earth the Lib Dems are for if, when given the chance, they decide not to go for it.

They may judge that it's time for the Lib Dems to grow up and start to build the house, rather than throwing rocks at it. Clegg's victory statement, three years ago, suggests to me that he agrees with that proposition for the Lib Dems to modernise and be more constructive.

5. The future of Labour and the Parliament. Clegg cannot just consider the here and now. He also needs to think about the shape of this Parliament. Labour, once rid of Brown, will quickly regroup. They will elect a presentable and much more popular leader in David Miliband. They will have a competent-looking Shadow Cabinet, packed with former Ministers whose reputations are broadly intact. And there is a very real chance, coalition or not, of a second election in the near future. There is a real risk not only that the Lib Dems could be tainted by governing with the Tories, but also that a rejuvenated Labour party finds itself able to present itself as the "clean centre Left" at an election that could be within two years.

My hunch, then, is that the Liberal Democrats will not enter into a coalition with the Conservatives. More likely is that the Lib Dems will agree to support the Conservatives on the most pressing issues, the economy, but that their support on other issues will be reserved. Expect a Clegg statement something like this:

"General Election result means that no party convinced enough of the electorate to give it a majority in the House of Commons. We are in a state of flux. But we cannot afford to be in a state of flux. The severity of the economic crisis that we face means that we must take brave decisions. The central issue of the election, and of the moment, is that we must come together to tackle the deficit. The Liberal Democrats will support the Conservatives to in a national economic council to tackle those challenges. We must have stable government that reassures the markets and the world that Britain will come through this crisis. But elsewhere there are real differences that remain. On Europe, immigration and political reform. We made a commitment to every Liberal Democrat voter that we would fight in the next Parliament on those issues. We cannot simply walk away from those promises. So we will continue to argue for what we believe in on the issues where we think differently to the Conservatives and the Labour Party. "

This, of course, depends on what Cameron offers Clegg on voting reform. He may surprise us once again and map out a course with Clegg to a referendum, where Tories campaign against and the Lib Dems campaign in favour. The Tories will know that the whole deal hinges on this. They will also know that they may be likely to win a referendum voting for no change to the voting system. For them, too, swallowing their pride on electoral reform may be worth doing in order to get a secure and stable coalition government.

But voting reform is where it hinges. Cameron's willingness to give significant ground will define this deal. But Clegg too could decide that there is too much risk in a full-on coalition. Better to offer qualified support in the national interest.

Time will tell.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Our day of power

Well, the talking is very nearly over. The leaders are holding their final rallies with their supporters on their home turf. The campaign has been a marathon for all three leaders - we've had the excitement of the debates; the eruption of Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem surge; the downright farce of Duffygate and Cameron's final all-nighter. And yet, some polls still suggest that up to 40% of voters have still not made up their minds.

Tomorrow, just before the polls close, I will publish my final predictions for the General Election Result and for what I think we'll be seeing over the course of the weekend. I'll also set out some of the key seats to watch for and my predictions of what will happen in those seats. In predicting the Election result, I've looked at all the target seats for the Lib Dems and the Conservatives and analysed what I think will happen in those key marginal seats.

Tonight and tomorrow is almost always one of the most fascinating moments in election campaigns. We see the final, frantic flurry of speeches and campaign hustings for each of the party leaders - the mad dashes to every corner of the country. And then, at midnight, the power of choice and of democracy is handed firmly back to the people of the country. Our leaders are strangly powerless. They retire to their homes to wait and hear what we have decided. There is no Government. We cast our votes: millions of people up and down the country making tiny crosses on ballot papers.

With this election, comes the real added power of massive uncertainty. Not since 1992 has an election been in such doubt. In many ways, this election is more uncertain than 1992; that election was notable for the pundits being proved wrong in how predictable they thought it was - before the event, many thought a Labour victory was the likely outcome.

The undecideds will be the great unknown tomorrow. We've seen the polls - and broadly they have settled on the Conservatives on 35%, with Labour and the Lib Dems vying for second place on 28 or 29%. I suspect there may be a late surge on polling day towards the Conservatives. The Lib Dem bounce is unlikely bounce again on polling day. They have peaked, and may actually fall short when people come to mark their cross.

My first predictions put the Tories winning a majority of 20. In each subsequent prediction, I have revised that downwards. It is remarkable that, in a campaign with the economic recession as the key issue and against a hugely unpopular Prime Minister, the Tory vote share has at best flatlined, at worst declined. Based on YouGov polls at the start and end of the campaign, the Tories have dropped two points during the campaign. It is easy to forget now that back in December a hung parliament was still thought fanciful, and that a December before that that the Tories were in for a comfortable majority.

There are a few certainties on Friday morning. No party will secure a comfortable majority. For the Tories not to do so will be deeply worrying for them. The Cameron project of reform was not enough - it did not convince in sufficient numbers to deliver a clear majority. If they win either a small majority or are able to operate a minority administration - life will be very difficult indeed for David Cameron. I predict that the story after the election, in six months time, will be one of a rejuvenated, Brown-less Labour Party very quickly rediscovering itself in opposition to a Conservative government that will be having a mighty difficult time of it. Wafer thin majority - or lack of one. A rookie Cabinet. Not knowing whether they can survive or whether they need a second, dangerous, election. Facing the harsh realities of government, with its Ministerial gaffes and organisational blunders. Struggling to cut the deficit and win support for those cuts. It will be very, very difficult and it is hard to see the Conservative Party emerge from that experience electorally stronger.

But tomorrow is the day for the people. The talking is over. The politicians can do no more. Silence descends. We go out and vote. We make our decision. It is a beautiful day, where people exercise real power. Ministers and former Ministers resign themselves to personal defeats. And the leaders are on the edges of their seats.

We will be, too. Good luck with the choice you make tomorrow.

The future

Election Predicton: GENERAL ELECTION 2010

A Hung Parliament. Conservative Party short of an overall majority by 20 seats.

Final Seats Prediction


Conservatives with the most votes and the most seats.

Share of the vote: CON 35 LAB 29 LIB DEMS 28

Ministers to lose seats: Phil Woolas, Jacqui Smith (ex-Minister, but this is the closest we'll get to a Portillo moment), Gillian Merron, Phil Hope, Jim Fitzpatrick.

Nick Brown only Cabinet Minister to lose his seat. Ed Balls to hold his seat.

Gordon Brown to concede defeat around 11am on Friday.

Tories to gain 2 seats in Scotland.

For the Conservatives, there will be huge relief at having secured a return to government for the first time in 13 years. There will, though, be increasing disappointment at their failure to secure an overall majority. 20 seats short, they will not be able to rely on the Ulster Unionists to get all of their business through; they will need to rely on other deals with the Liberal Democrats to get things done. They are unlikely to want to, or seek agreement for, any coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats. Minority government will not be easy for them. With a rookie team and an unpleasant menu of cuts - a second election in a year or so is likely.

For Labour, this result will be seen as a huge let off. Brown will quickly set out a timetable for his departure; he may lead Labour for a short time to avoid Harriet Harman building a power base for a leadership bid. Miliband will quickly declare his interest in the leadership - for him, the chance to oppose a minority Tory government, with a front-bench of competent former Ministers and, finally, rid of Gordon Brown. Labour will quickly want to pin the defeat on Brown and swiftly move on. Labour without Brown will soon seem a very different, re-energised beast. It will supplant Clegg as the new kids on the block.

The Liberal Democrats will be closer to power tomorrow morning that at any time since the Lib-Lab pact. My hunch is that there is no natural alliance between the Lib Dems and the Tories, and that there will be no deal on Friday or over the weekend. But if they fail to "break the mould", they may reasonably judge that a couple of places at the Cabinet table and being seen to make a difference; to keep Cameron's Conservatives in check from within and be tested with real power may be worth more than slavishly chasing electoral reform. If the election campaign has done anything for the Lib Dems it must make them realise they can do more than chirp from the sidelines. They have increased their vote election after election and gained impressive support across the country - north, south, urban, rural, Scotland, England. If the Lib Dem goal is ultimately to secure genuine three party politics; as a party unlikely to secure a majority of its own for decades (if indeed they ever could), being seen as constructive and serious players in government could be an offer too good to refuse. I am increasingly convinced that they should swallow their pride and take a constructive role in government. They grew up during this campaign - and government is what the grown-ups do.

Whatever happens - we're in for an historic night.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Labour will slaughter Brown this weekend

Every election defeat means disaster for the leader who leads their party off the cliff. But the Labour Party will slaughter Gordon Brown like no other defeated Prime Minister before him if Labour, as must be certain now, loses the General Election in the early hours of Friday morning. He chose to be PM, he chose to stay and fight on in spite of each coup - and he led Labour to defeat. Before I offer my prediction on the result, let's consider what will happen to Brown after Friday.

First, if it is to be a Hung Parliament, let's not forget that Brown is not obliged to resign until he's certain that he could not command the confidence of the Commons. Now, it's not been in Brown's nature to reliquish his premiership lightly, and it's not beyond the bounds of possiblity that Brown may seek cling on by his fingernails and try to form a coalition with the Lib Dems if they have gained a significant amount of seats. It's unlikely that the Lib Dems will win enough seats to be able to combine with Labour into a credible coalition, but I would not rule out Brown trying to cling on. Ted Heath lingered on in 1974 when he came second and four votes behind Harold Wilson's Labour Party. Brown is likely to be much further behind - but he may still try.

I suspect Brown would be strongly "urged" by those who ducked leadership coup after leadership coup to throw in the towel. So my hunch is that Brown won't linger in the bunker long, but it's likely that we'll see the Prime Minister concede defeat and go to the Palace to resign much later than in previous elections. I can't see a statement from Brown at four or five on Friday morning at his count saying that he's called Cameron to congratulate him on securing the most number of seats and having first right to form a government.

Labour's reaction to Brown's predicament on Friday will be fascinating. They should surely have already planned for this outcome. When John Major held his "put up or shut up" leadership challenge in 1995, he had a target written down beforehand - if he secured less votes, he would resign and wave his paper to those who claimed he was acting rashly. Even Thatcher calculated the maths to work out when she was finished. Brown must surely have done the same and will have decided to make a clean, dignified break. But Brown's track record suggest this is unlikely.

Ultimately, it may not be Brown's decision. Others in the Labour Party may have their own ideas. Brown's deadliest opposition on Friday is likely to be all those who pulled back from the brink in the failed coups of the last few years. The "Cabinet", led by Miliband and Straw are more likely to break their silence - blame the election defeat squarely on Brown and a "failure to renew the Labour Party" and insist that he stands down. They flunked the chance to kick him out before. They will not flinch from that on Friday. There may be such a collective relief at seeing the old, powerful bear finally mortally wounded; that they all pile in to finish him off. If he fails to go with dignity, the Labour Party will turn the pistol on him themselves. If they all decide to pile in with relish; including even Tony Blair finally breaking his "silence" it could be a very bloody end for Gordon Brown.

For the likes of (David or Ed) Miliband, a Hung Parliament will be "game on" in a big way. It will be a dream escape for a party that got stuck with the wrong, conceited, too-scary-to-oust leader but luckily was fighting an election against a Tory party whose project of renewal was incomplete and who had failed to "seal the deal". Cameron's project is more complete than Kinnock's in 1992, and he is a more convincing and appealing leader - and for that reason Cameron will achieve what Kinnock couldn't quite achieve and squeak through with a Hung Parliament.

A Brown-less Labour Party should seize the opportunity for re-birth. If they manage to limit their losses on Thursday and keep the party in second place and in tact, a revitalised leader will be able to get after the Tories on May 6th. The Tory inheritance will be rotten. The Tories are likely not to let anyone forget their argument that it was Labour's fault. But it was also Brown's fault and has been framed as Brown's fault by the Tories incessantly.

A Brown-less Labour Party will be one relieved of a mighty and painful sore. If skilful, a new Labour leader may be able to provoke twinges of regret in voters if he parades an experienced Shadow Cabinet packed full of ex-Ministers against Cameron's rookie team dealing with nightmarish spending cuts. Mervyn King suggested that the party that wins the election may be out of power for a generation. That might be excessive. But the Tory "win" - whether it's a wafer thin majority or not - may begin to look decisively flakey a few months down the line.

Ringing endorsements

Duffygate thankfully livened up last week's campaigning. And the debates have provided welcome novelty factor. But after five years of a rotten Parliament and a Prime Minister seemingly scared of facing the electorate - Thursday of this week can't come quickly enough.

We had endorsements from most of the major papers last week. The Tories reached beyond their natural right wing press to secure the approval of the Economist and the Times - good going for David Cameron. There was, however, a note of caution in those endorsements. The Sunday Times claimed the Conservatives "deserve the chance to govern", possibly similar to the endorsement that many will make at polling booths on Thursday - that it's time to give something else a chance, rather than being wholeheartedly convinced that the Tories are the answer.

The Lib Dems secured the coup of an endorsement from the Guardian, who claimed that the "liberal moment has come". They also advised their readers to vote tactically in Labour/Conservative marginals to keep the Tories out. In doing so, they rightly recognise the threat of a centre left fudge on Thursday, with some Labour voters drifting to the Lib Dems and reducing the Tory swing needed in harder to reach seats. The Observer's endorsement was wholeheartedly Lib Dem - perhaps it would have been uncouth to have argued twice for tactical voting, perhaps the Observer has more confidence. The Observer rightly congratulated Nick Clegg for his impact on the Lib Dem campaign. It has strengthened his leadership immeasurably within the party. His leadership makes the Kennedy years almost seem wasted years - one must think that Clegg would have driven home the Lib Dems advantage in 2005 post Iraq with more energy and drive than Charlie K.

Labour meanwhile continue to die slowly before our eyes. The loyal Labour press duly endorsed them. Tragically for Brown, he again performed well at interview with Jeremy Paxman on Friday evening. But noone is listening. There were ugly scenes at a "campaign" event in Sunderland at the weekend, where Brown spoke to an audience of activists who angrily bundled out the outsider who dared to ask him a question. It looked bad and Labour would be roundly kicking themselves for not kicking him out were there not such a good chance of a hung parliament on Thursday. Losing to the Tories, but giving the Tories a majority, in difficult economic circumstances, with a dodgy inheritance where the likes of a Miliband could blame it all on Brown then swiftly regroup is actually a very good outcome for Labour. The Labour party will turn on Brown with venom on May 7th, perhaps as early as after 10pm on May 6th - to purge themselves of the Brown years.

My prediction for the election has now been calculated, and I will post it on Wednesday evening. Some of the key highlights and seats to watch out for will be in there too. We're in for a historic night - if only we could just get on with it.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Last chance saloon

Very quick blog on the final debate.

First off, it has been amazing how these debates have shaped the election. Lagging massively behind at the start of the campaign, the Lib Dems have surged hugely since the first debate. They have become major players. They have pushed Labour into the nightmare scenario of third place. Labour hoped for second place and a hung parliament - they now face a huge battle to avoid third place in this election. Yesterday's gaffe did not help.

The story of the debates has been the surge for the Liberal Democrats. It has changed an election in which we thought that Labour would rally and deprive the unconvincing Tories of an overall majority.

Instead, the campaign - after the first debate - was thrown into a three way campaign not seen in British politics for generations.

I suspect tonight will confirm what we've seen before. Clegg and Cameron the slick, convincing agents of change. Brown the, perhaps substantial... but ignored and forgotten leader of a party that has run out of steam and is no longer being listened to. The Labour spinners in the media centre will appear as tired and out of touch as their leader.

I suspect the debates have already set the course. But Cameron has the opportunity, at the business end of this election, to come through as the solid candidate for Prime Minister. Clegg has shown his novelty value. Brown has been nowhere. To win his majority, Cameron needs to cut through the style and novelty of the last debates and give the electorate a reason to vote for a Tory majority next week.

I doubt he will do it. For the reasons I've already set out, this will most likely be another narrow win for Cameron, but still failing define themselves after wasted years in Opposition. Failing quite to shake off the unseen, unpredicted second party. The Liberal Democrats. And setting us up next week for the Tories falling agonsingly short of a clear majority.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament, Tories short of majority by 5.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A disastrous gaffe

A game-changing moment? There have been plenty of microphone gaffes by politicians over the years, but Gordon Brown's gaffe today is extremely significant in this election campaign. Why?

Brown's gaffe reveals many of the weaknesses that many suspect about him and were confirmed in the back of that car today. Fatally, Brown was revealed as completely duplicitous. One of the untold stories of this campaign is how unconvincing Brown is in his interactions with voters. Just as he cannot seem to master the presentational aspects needed to win the debates, so he cannot master the charm and human interaction with voters on the streets. His decision to allow Sky News to fix a microphone on him was already fairly painful with his forced "Hello, nice to see you's" as he's gone from one Asda supermarket to another. And today, he was busted saying one thing to a voter and then denouncing the encounter as a "disaster" and the placid voter as "bigoted" as soon as he got out of sight of the voters. Tragically, he'd actually won her over. But thin-skinned Brown didn't see it that way.

It was blatantly duplicitous. We've seen the fixed Brown smile before when explaining away the Election That Never Was or denying any involvement in the Damian McBride email scandals. We've seen Brown running away from the Lockerbie decsion, denying copying Tory policy on inheritance tax, the 10p tax row and pretending to like Tony Blair. Brown is now a politican defined by his inability to be straight with the voters, a line that - to their credit - the Tories shaped from day one of Brown's premiership. He batted off some fairly disastrous allegations of bullying in Andrew Rawnsley's recent valedictory on the Labour Party - noone quite believed him.

Today's gaffe made flesh Brown's weaknesses. Duplicitous. Not straight with the voters. A man who has never stood for serious election. Prone to temper tantrums. Unable to take responsibility - look how he blamed one of his advisors. Unable to face up to his mistakes and even a liar: even after his painful forty minute visit to Mrs Duffy, he claimed he'd "misunderstood the question". That is a lie - he understood it perfectly well. In his comic appearance on Radio 4, he decided to portray Mrs Duffy as an immigration-obsessed lunatic, though she had asked a broad range of questions on the deficit, education and crime - he now looks fatally out of touch with working class voters on immigration. And, cringe-time, out came the YouTube fake smile on Mrs Duffy's doorstep after his already cringe-worthy apology dash.

The most damaging aspect laid bare is Brown's total lack of credibility. When he next goes out on the streets meeting voters, who will take him seriously? Today's incident laid bare the Labour party's fatal decision to allow Brown a clear run at the leadership in 2007. With a different leader, one with the Prime Ministerial credentials of warmth, empathy, powers of persuasion, charisma and credibility, the Labour party would be doing far better in the polls. Brown was a sorry, laughable sight today - a man who scarcely believes himself that he is fit to be PM. The decision to knock on Mrs Duffy's door and apologise only served to make Brown look more unfit for office.

Tetchy, tired and lacking in credibility - it's time for Brown to go. And as each Labour Minister is wheeled out to defend the indefensible - they look more and more out of this campaign. Mrs Duffy will be a key part of the history of Gordon Brown's premiership - as the moment we really knew it was all over.

Third place for Labour looks a lot more likely tonight than it ever has before in this campaign.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament, Conservatives short by 5

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Who's at most risk from Clegg?

Spooked by the Lib Dem surge over the last two weeks, both Labour and the Conservatives have rushed to spook voters thinking of voting yellow on May 6th. Flirt with Clegg, say Labour, and you end up married to David Cameron. Vote Clegg, say the Tories, and you'll wake up with Gordon Brown in Downing Street on May 7th.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are trying to spook voters away from the Lib Dems. There aren't many facts, it all hinges on impossible calculations and predictions, but it does seem clear that the Lib Dem surge should hold until polling day. They're holding steady at around 29% in national polls. But the polling figures also show that of those who are saying they will vote Lib Dem, 27% say they may change their minds. Labour and Conservative voters are more decided, with only 15% saying they may change their minds.

So what do you get if you vote Clegg? Perhaps the right question to ask is which of Labour and the Conservatives has the most to lose from the Clegg surge?

The big worry for the Tories is that a Lib Dem surge puts out of reach the 30 Lib Dem / Conservative marginal seats that Cameron needs to win to tick off the easiest of the 118 seats required for an overall majority. The Tory strategy has long been based on winning the vast majority of these Lib Dem seats. It now appears likely that the Lib Dems will hold the vast majority of those seats.

For the Tories, this is a major headache. It means that Cameron now has to win seats outside his target list of 118. It means Cameron needs to win harder Lib Dem seats requiring even greater swings and Labour seats, many of which are in the North. And the figures for the Tories in the North don't look good. Labour may be behind in the national polls (and collapsing in the South at 17% of the vote), but the Labour vote is holding up in the North at 40% compared with Mr Cameron's 24% (the Lib Dems are a steady 29%). Seats such as Leeds North East and Ellesmere Port near Liverpool look unlikely to fall to the Conservatives given their current regional projections. The Tories are realising this, claiming rather transparently that they were "extending the battleground" to Labour held seats outside their target list of the most winnable seats. It represents a major change in tactics for a party that has poured money into around 130 target seats since at least 2007.

The Lib Dems threaten the Tories everywhere, looking likely to hold on in the Conservative / Lib Dem marginals and taking away valuable votes in the North with a healthy share of the vote. Crucially of all the parties, the Lib Dems have their support spread evenly across the country, with 32% support in the South and Midlands and just 27% their lowest vote share in London. Labour on the other hand crash to 17% in the South, but soar to 40% in the North. The Tories hold firm at 40% in the South, Midlands and London, but have their own crash to 24% in the North.

There is a chance that the Lib Dem surge may help the Tories in the North. If Labour leak votes to the Lib Dems and Tories in equal measure, in some seats it may let the Tories in if they're already in second place. But if the Tories don't make in-roads to the Lib Dems in the South, then it will be serious squeaky-bum time for Cameron in the North. My hunch is that he will do better than some expect outside the Tory 118 seat comfort zone, winning seats as far down the list as the 150s... but that the strength of the Labour vote will leave Cameron just short of his overall majority.

Of course, the Tories are being noisiest about the dangers of a hung parliament and of voting Clegg. The IMF will be called in, they say. You'll wake up on May 7th and Gordon Brown will still be here. None of the disaster scenarios spelt out in the Tories rather panicky (and riskily negative) election broadcast this week will come to pass.

For Labour, the danger is not so much Vote Clegg, Get Cameron. The danger is if too many vote Clegg, you get Labour meltdown. But it's a tricky balance. They know that the more who vote Clegg, the more likely their best scenario - a hung parliament - will be. No serious Labour Minister could have expected to win this election. From the start, they have been in John Major "damage limitation" mode. The size, or lack of, Cameron's majority matters greatly to them. But coming third in share of the vote and matching the depths of Michael Foot's 28% after his "longest suicide note in history" is seriously bad news for the Labour recovery post May 7th. It may even deprive them of the right to be Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. They will want Clegg to do well, but not too well.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament - Conservatives short by 5

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Is anyone listening to Labour?

Labour has tonight released a letter to the press urging for a greater focus on policy over presentation in the remaining 10 days of the campaign.

the focus on the debates, both the process surrounding
them, and the polling before and after which they have attracted, has
dramatically reduced the amount of airtime dedicated to the scrutiny of
the policies of the parties. This is particularly so in the case of the
main bulletins which remain the main source of news for many people.

Is this fair? Or is it desperation from a party struggling to be listened to.

By all of this, the Labour Party mean that the debates have turned the election into a style contest - they can't say that, but it's what they mean. Certainly there has been an incredible focus on the debates - in part because they were new, in part because of the success of Nick Clegg in the first debate which has turned the polls around and pushed Labour into third place. But I would also argue that they've generated huge interest not so much because of Nick Clegg's own performance, but because an election with a tired incumbent party and a yet to be convincing opposition had ample space for a third challenger. And once viewers saw a vision of three party politics - they rather liked it.

True, much of the coverage of the debates has focused too much on style. The Sky News build up had frequent clips from body-language experts and regular analysis on language (but not substance) from Joey Jones with slow-mo coverage of every aspect of their body language too. The post-match instant polling gives an instant reaction and dominates the coverage after the debates.

But the debates are 90 minutes of relentless focus on policy. There is nothing but policy in that hour and a half. The analysis may venture too far on style at times, but these are four and a half hours of primetime in-depth policy discussion that we've never had at an election before. And they are pulling in the viewers. Next week's debate is likely to top ten million viewers. That's a hefty amount of policy coverage that no previous election has seen.

Labour claim that the Tories and Lib Dems agree with them that the debates focus too much on style. They probably do. But they've crucially won, or drawn, a debate. And they won their debates by getting their message across through the vital mix of style and substance. You may not agree with Cameron on Europe. But he got the substance across on this and other issues, and the instant verdict of the public was that he won. You take the electorate for fools if you think they just voted on whether they liked Clegg's tie or Cameron's haircut.

In all of this, Brown and Labour are not facing up to reality. All successful political leaders, wherever they are, need to mix a combination of style and substance. Brown attempted to rise above it all right at the start of last week's debate - "if these are about style, then count me out". That may be tempting, but Brown can't just opt out of the laws of politics. You need people to agree with you. But, first, you need people to understand and listen to you.

If you could be bothered to listen to him and see beyond the rictus smile, I actually thought Brown did win on Thursday. But noone was listening anymore. And for those who were, his clunking style got in the way of that. Cameron and Clegg are clearer and more effective communicators. Brown is suffering from the terrible consequences of being a poor communicator and peddling a message that people are tired of listening to. And the debates have accentuated that, but not created it.

Labour badly need to be listened to - they are in danger of becoming entirely peripheral to this campaign. Rather than moaning about it, they need to sort out their communication problems. Wheeling out an Elvis impersonator on Saturday, after hyping it for hours beforehand on Twitter; probably isn't the way to get out of the rut.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament, Conservatives short by 5

Friday, 23 April 2010

It's not a knockout

The dust has settled on the second leader's debate. The frenetic, rather pathetic, spinning from each of the parties after the debate has died down - where each party rushed out to claim victory. Spin alley was pretty undignified the first time round. Last night it made most of the party reps look fairly foolish.

As predicted by this blog, the second debate was pretty much a draw. Some polls showed Cameron the winner. Others Clegg. But the margin of "victory" was always pretty small. Brown lagged behind by a few points, but there was no clear winner. For the second time, noone gaffed. But this debate was feistier than the first, because it mattered so hugely - more than the first debate and more than the final debate.

Brown did rather well. He came third in most of the polls but if the assessment was purely on the basis of his performance, what he said, how he came across (and in comparison with the first debate) - it was a dramatic improvement. He was on top of the policy and gave the kind of competent answers on foreign policy that you'd expect of a sitting Prime Minister. He doesn't agree with Nick anymore, but I actually thought Brown sneaked his way back into the game a little bit. The trouble is that it's too late. People have stopped listening. In reality, Brown has been knocked out of these debates. He's clearly uncomfortable with the format, struggling to look as at ease as Cameron and Clegg. He may be good on the substance, but he won't persuade in this format because he simply can't come across as fresh, new, slick and engaging in the same way that the others can. Like it or not, this is a TV contest like the X-Factor, and he has been knocked out of the debates, if not yet the election as a whole.

Clegg survived. This was a solid performance. He didn't gaffe. He was the best at engaging with the audience, at telling a convincing anecdote (as opposed to Brown's pre-rehearsed bathtime "gag" and Cameron's lame story about being left behind on his morning jog). Clegg comes across as not trying to hard. He also never lets either Cameron or Brown get away with anything, always jumping in with his rebuttal. He neatly side-stepped an out of order question from Boulton on the half-baked Telegraph story. He held his own on Trident. On Europe, Cameron failed to land a blow on the EU Treaty referendum and succeeded in highlighting Cameron's dodgy coalition of Euro loonies in Brussels. He was convincing in claiming the EU wasn't perfect, but a necessity of an inter-dependent world that the UK needs credibly to engage with.

Cameron held out for a draw, maybe sneaked a win. But the main mission for him was to win big and burst Nick Clegg's bubble. He did not manage to do that. I was amazed to see that he had been declared the winner. At times, Cameron was almost marginalised by Brown and Clegg and his eyes flickered nervously and shiftily when he was attacked. His rebuttals lacked punch. He showed the most anger when attacking Brown's leaflets - this looked petulant and self-centred. But he was much better and more commanding than last week. Cameron looked more prime ministerial. But he has not commanded the debates and constantly looks as if he is stunned and looks like the bewildered favourite that the outsiders have left behind.

So, there was no knockout punch from anyone on anyone. Two debates down, there is now solid evidence that Brown isn't any good at them, Clegg is rather good at them, and Cameron is not as good as we thought he'd be at them. The third debate is unlikely to change that.

For Cameron, he must now find a way of reining in the Lib Dems in the next two weeks. I doubt that the final debate will do that definitively. The Tories looked desperate in claiming that a Hung Parliament would lead to the IMF being called in. It's also clear the Conservative HQ are mobilising smear campaigns against Clegg in the Tory press. They need to stop that nonsense and focus on ruthlessly clarifying the Tory message over the next two weeks - spelling out in clear terms why the Conservative package, by which I mean its policies and its people (not its philosophies) deserve a cross on the ballot paper in 13 days time.

Going negative is not the way back for Cameron.

PREDICTION: HUNG PARLIAMENT - Conservatives short by 10 of overall majority

Thursday, 22 April 2010

A score draw

A very quick blog on tonight's debate. This debate will define the campaign. A win for Clegg will cement the Lib Dem lead. A defeat, a gaffe or a clanger from Clegg will puncture the Lib Dem bubble for good. Watch for headlines like "flash in the pan"... basically putting Clegg back in his box for the rest of the campaign.

Another lacklustre, struggling performance for Brown will put the Labour party to bed for the election. Downbeat, almost invisible, in the last debate... Brown needs to elevate himself and get involved in the action. If he's nowhere, then the Labour vote will remain pitifully below 30%. Disastrous for Labour.

Cameron. All the pressure is on Cameron. He needs to find a way of dealing with Clegg without compromising all the work he's done since 2005 on dragging the Tories into the centre ground. Attack Clegg too much and it risks looking like a lurch to the right. Especially on foreign policy topics where basically the public has disagreed with Cameron on Iraq and Afghanistan... and where he can be exposed as breaking his "cast iron guarantee" on the Lisbon Treaty.

I doubt Clegg will do as well as last time. Cameron and Brown need to watch out for too blatantly copying Nick Clegg's technique... Brown is the favourite to stare awkwardly into the camera a la Clegg. But Clegg is likely to be able to pitch a good enough line on Iraq and Afghanistan to stay safe.

Cameron needs not to attack Clegg, but to give people a reason to vote Tory. The lack of difference between Labour and the Conservatives on foreign policy will make this difficult. Cameron needed this debate to be one where the are clear dividing lines between the parties. Unfortunately for him, the biggest dividing lines will be with the Lib Dems. Cameron risks appearing like Brown, whilst arguing that Brown would be a disaster.

My prediction? Cameron and Brown will be desperate. There is a chance of a big clanger from one of them. We've also seen Cameron recover from a dire situation before. He may tonight prove his bouncebackability once and for all and put in a serious performance. My hunch, though, given the subject matter will be a score draw. No clear winner tonight, setting it all up intriguingly for the last debate.

PREDICTION: Conservatives short of majority by 20

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Cameron: not HD-ready

Another poll puts the Lib Dems in the lead. We've yet to find out whether this is a bubble that will burst before polling day. Just as Cameron held a more commanding lead when an election seemed a long way off, we might find that the Clegg bubble bursts closer to polling day. But the fact that it's lasted a week should have the Tories mighty scared.

I try in this blog to forecast some of the key things that will happen in the future. It now looks more likely than at any point in the last Parliament that a hung parliament will be the outcome on 7 May. Opinion polls indicating national swing are totally irrelevant in all polls but especially this poll. So, before May 6th, I will be publishing predictions in full for every seat in the country. This is the only way that anyone can come up with an accurate prediction.

If it is to be a Hung Parliament - the knives will be out for Cameron on May 7th. How did the Tory leader not secure an outright win against a hapless, much hated Prime Minister going for a fourth term, after the world's biggest economic crisis.

Here are some of the mistakes that I think Cameron has made and is continuing to make:

1. It's all about him Since the start, it has all been about Project Cameron, the Cameroons, Cameron's Conservatives. Cameron tried to make it about him, because he judged that the Conservative brand was too toxic. So he focused the change on presentation rather than substance. He changed Marathon to Snickers without explaining in detail what was changing inside. This fatally played into...

2. The Heir to Blair The Tories had been dealt three election defeats by Tony Blair. You can't blame them for copying Blair. Cameron, from the start, modelled himself on Blair. His personal and political admiration for Blair has been well documented. Perhaps one of the best things Labour could do is to bring out Tony Blair to remind voters that, first, Cameron isn't anywhere near as good as Blair was and, second, most voters are pretty sick of the Presidential style of Blair. But this overt attempt to copy Blair forever risked the Cameron project being about style over substance. Blair at least filled in some of the gaps. Too often, Cameron is caught talking vaguely about values, and "change" without specifying what "change" he would offer in practical terms.

3. The Big Society risks turning into a big flop. Already activists are saying that it's a hard sell on the doorstep. This will surely be judged as a huge strategic mistake. The 2005 Conservative strategy of focussing on 5 key policies (I can nearly remember them now: clean hospitals, controlled immigration, school discipline) may have failed on the substance, but at least you know what their priorities were. This election, when it really matters, the Conservatives have chosen to hide their probably very good policies under the cloud of a vague "Big Idea". Apart from anything, it's massively ambitious and it puts the focus on what the individual can do rather than what government can do. That might be a good approach after an election, but not when voters are looking specifically to elect a government on the basis of what they would do.

4. Where are the Shadow Cabinet? They may be somewhere, but they are nowhere near well known enough, credible enough or prominent enough at this stage in an election campaign. It is quite absurd for its prospective Chancellor - at the end of an economic crisis and with debt the key policy challenge of the next Parliament - to be virtually invisible. It makes the Tory campaign a sort of cardboard cutout. You have Dave, but beyond the man himself you struggle to identify what else there is. Voters need a wide base of evidence if you're going to seal the deal with them. A one-man band is not enough. At this stage in 1997, we knew Blair, Brown, Straw, Blunkett, Cook. We knew the whole package we were getting.

5. A Hung Parliament "would be bad" I may be wrong, but this line of attack to stem the Lib Dem surge seems a huge tactical mistake, and one that reflects all of the problems I've outlined. The point of an election campaign is to persuade people what you stand for, why the should vote for you. Claiming that "Five more years of Gordon Brown" or an "indecisive Hung Parliament" would be bad is not enough. It assumes that the electorate are willing to swap whenever the incumbent is looking dodgy. A fatal flaw neatly summed up by Marina Hyde on the campaign trail.

"Do you want another five years of Gordon Brown?" he asked. The crowd gave up a huge chorus of "No!" "Or do you want real change with the Conservatives?" he continued rhetorically. That only three or four obliged with a "Yes!" seems the most sledgehammer of metaphors for his current difficulties – yet it was so.

6. The future once? Not his fault, but Cameron has been in the job too long. Always a challenge to appear new when you've been attacking the Government for so long. But a greater focus on policy, rather than opposing, in the election campaign might have made people listen again.

A range of problems. But when, or if, there's a post mortem on why the Tories didn't get their majority - it will surely be that they just weren't HD ready. People wanted to change channel, but the picture was all a little bit fuzzy.

PREDICTION: Conservatives short of overall majority by 10

Monday, 19 April 2010

He was the future once

Wow. We never quite thought that the TV debates could have such an explosive effect on this General Election campaign. But the dust has settled, and the Lib Dems seem to be establishing some kind of poll increase of around 7%. They are unlikely to finish the campaign above 30%. But a final share of the vote of 27% or 28% seems entirely possible.

This is devastating for the Tories. Their entire strategy relied on snatching the 30 or so Lib Dem / Conservative marginals in the South West and South East. That now seems in serious danger. The Lib Dems are simply not going to lose all the target seats for the Conservatives in Cameron's crucial list of 118 marginals he needs to get his majority of one. Many of them were already going to be difficult. The likes of Chris Huhne, for example, occupies a marginal seat in Eastleigh near Southampton. But candidates such as Huhne - and others in the Tories' crucial list of 118 seats - are often seen as "sticky". I didn't think they'd shift before Clegg's barnstorming debate performance. They certainly won't now.

So, the key change is that it now appears more likely that we will have a Hung Parliament. The strong Lib Dem polling is encouraging Cameron to claim that a vote for Clegg is a vote for Brown. A foolish strategy. The whole reason Cameron is behind is his failure to properly clarify and explain what a Tory vote means. What do you get if you vote Cameron? For too long, he has pitched what a Tory vote doesn't mean. It means you don't get five years of Gordon Brown. Nick Clegg is right to say that, in the post-Blair age, tha vacuousness simply doesn't wash anymore.

Cameron faces a big headache for the next debate. Attack Clegg and he risks attacking the most popular politician since Churchill. He also risk attacking him on the issues that he's tried to drag his party to the centre ground on. Too much bashing of Clegg's wishy-washy liberalism could turn off the very Lib Dem voters he needs to win in his marginal seats. He has to pull of the difficult trick of claiming on the need for decisive government. A real mandate. If he'd properly clarified the Cameroonian project, that would be easily done. But he's still colouring in the gaps. Still struggling to explain the "big society". He has been out-Cameroned by Clegg. He no longer feels new. The line "he was the future once" could well turn out to be the epitaph on Cameron's campaign for a decisive mandate.

In a sense, Cameron was a victim of his own failure to "fix the Tory roof when the sun was shining". For too long, Cameron's strategy relied on Brown and the Labour party self-destructing. Major's 1992 election victory couldn't be pulled off by Labour could it? No, it couldn't. But a Lib Dem surge will give Cameron a mighty headache between now and polling day.

Best strategy? Give Clegg enough rope to hang himself. 18 days is a long time in politics. Cameron needs a Clegg gaffe to recover the ground. He's unlikely to lay a glove on him otherwise. Just ask Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - they'd been dealing with it until January this year.

PREDICTION: Conservatives short of overall majority by 10

Friday, 16 April 2010

So, what will change?

A big night last night. It feels like the morning after a cup final or even an election itself. Nick Clegg's team will perhaps feel as though they did win a cup final last night. Widely declared as the winner - for whatever reason - Clegg and the Lib Dems will be feeling high as kites this morning after last night's success. It could not have gone better.

Just take this morning's headlines. Long complaining of being squeezed out of the debate or overshadowed by events, not even the closure of the entire UK airspace bumped Clegg off the headlines. "Clegg comes of age" shouted the Telegraph. "Clegg smashes two-party system" claimed the Independent.

Make no mistake, last night's debate will have changed our politics. Leaders debates will always now be a feature of our General Elections. Many worried the debates would be too sterile. Lack of audience participation aside, they weren't sterile. They were a good cross between the organisation of American debates and the cut and thrust of PMQs.

The biggest change - and the reason why Nick Clegg did so well - was because last night was a glimpse of a bigger politics than the two-party system we've been saddled with for generations. Clegg was allowed to speak and not be heckled or jeered at by the unfairness of the House of Commons system. We saw a politics that wasn't just about a choice between Labour and the Conservatives. Three arguments as opposed to two was exciting. And you got the sense that Nick Clegg represented all those who wanted to break into the political system, to put their view across, be listened to and empowered to make a difference.

But it was just a glimpse. What will it change? In the first post debate poll, Sky had the Tories on 35%, Labour on 27% and the Lib Dems on 26%. At a general election, this would translate in to Labour losing 100 seats, Tories gaining 82 seats and the Lib Dems gaining 17. It would leave the Conservatives a whopping 38 seats short of an overall majority. It is crazy to think that, even if they gained more than a quarter of the percentage of the vote, the Lib Dems would still have less than a sixth of the MPs in the Commons. The most damaging aspects of two-party politics - in the electoral system - must surely be changed. Without doing so, we are short-changing the electorate. People don't vote Lib Dem because they think they won't get in - we need to reform the voting system so that it gives every party the chance for their percentage of the vote to be fairly reflected in the number of seats it has.

These debates need to act as the spur for real electoral reform. If a majority gave Clegg the win, it was probably as much a vote against two-party politics as it was a vote for Clegg. Bold government needs to ask the people whether it is time for a change to our electoral system as well as the government we select.

What else will change? The Lib Dems are certain to get a bounce from the debate. Clegg may feel sobered this morning by the fact that he still has two more to get through. But a win is a win, and the Lib Dems will generate momentum in the polls. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Lib Dems pushing 25 or 26% in the next poll. This would have a catastrophic effect on the Tories strategy to win their 118 marginal seats, 30 of which are Lib Dem held. They need all of them - and every increase in the Lib Dem vote puts Cameron's majority at risk. The Lib Dem's gains are likely to be at Labour's expense - and Labour could slip below 30% at the next poll.

Last night was fascinating. What is fascinating now is the effect of the debates on the polls. Last night appears to have made a Tory outright majority less likely. But the proof will be in the polls we get tonight - and whether Clegg can keep this effort up.

As for Brown? I can't remember one thing he said last night. Clearly in third place, he needs to make sure he doesn't slip to third in the overall polls too.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament - Conservatives short by 10

Thursday, 15 April 2010

An historic moment awaits in all campaigns and this campaign

Tonight will be a historic night in UK General Elections. For the first time, the leaders of the three main parties - Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg - will debate, live, with each other on national television. For an hour and a half, they will be under intense scrutiny; the media and the public on the look out for every word, gesture, killer line, gaffe, glance at the watch, blush...

The fact that we're having these debates probably reflects just how close this election is. Tony Blair refused to debate in all his elections. He had too much to lose. John Major, William Hague and Michael Howard wanted to debate because they knew Tony Blair wouldn't risk it and the election was out of their hands. This time, they all know it's a gamble. But the elction is a close one; and they're stuck with it.

Brown will be dreading it. He was ill at ease for the first two years at PMQs. He has a legion of gaffes and non-answers behind him. The YouTube smiley face disaster. Refusals to answer questions on boom and bust, the election that never was, the released Lockerbie bomber, the McBride affair. He has agonising experiences on GMTV under his belt. His answers are long, verbose and too focused on stats.

Against Cameron the PR man and Clegg with his nothing to lose, easy charm; Brown's appearance is a nightmare in waiting for the Labour party. Brown has more presentational weaknesses to resolve than any other candidate. But with expectations low, just one glimmer of humanity or charm from Brown could register with the voters.

Cameron's expectations are sky high. He needs to perfom well, but not come over as the slick PR man. He needs to get into the detail. But his history stands him in good stead - cool under pressure, speaking without notes, when in an almighty hole in September 2007; Cameron produced a hugely impressive party conference speech that made Brown cancel the election. He will have rehearsed immaculately.

Clegg should enjoy himself. He clearly knows his stuff. He's not the same Clegg that blundered over the "thirty quid" state pension. He needs to look different, but he should ease himself into this first debate and simply use the opportunity to get his messages across.

In an election that has yet to engage people, he might just inspire the voter who has given up on the idea of an uninspiring choice between Cameron and Brown. If he plays into the anti-politics audience, presents himself as wanting something different - he might just find people agree with him. He has no baggage - an advantage and a disadvantage. If those without an opinion of him (good or bad) see him mess up - they will come to a conclusion pretty quickly. There will be no other baggage to persuade them he was "having a bad day, is OK really".

The verdict? Utterly unpredictable. All the leaders have their form; with Brown's looking dodgiest. But any one of them could screw it up.

In the end, as with the Chancellor's debate, it is more likely to be sterile - with every candidate playing it safe. The stakes are just too high.

PREDICTION: Cameron to edge it, Clegg a close second, Brown third. Brown likely to disappoint with long, unsympathetic or fake answers and dodgy body language.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Big idea risks leaving us with no idea

The Conservatives launched their 2010 Manifesto today, boldly entitled "Your Invitation to Join the Government of Britain". A manifesto with what David Cameron has called a "big idea" - that it's "we, the people" who change things not the state. With a pledge that "we're all in this together" and that the current climate demands honesty that government doesn't get it right all the time and the empowering people is the central change that Britain needs.

It was pretty strong stuff - at the most passionate point in the launch, he claimed that the governments of the last 40 years had got it wrong, had "taken people for fools" in pretending that government knows best. Including Thatcher and Major?

In promoting philosophy or concept above hard proposals or policy, the Tories are gambling big time. The answer to the key PR question of "what's the headline?" was clearly meant to be "Power to the people - Tories say we're all in this together". The essentially philosophical argument that a state that does less is better than a state that is interventionist was clearly intended to be the take-away message.

Of the interviews I've seen since the launch (including a return to politics for Chris Grayling) - this philosophical approach gives more mystery rather than clarity to an already ill-defined Tory message. I would have thought that the key goal of the Tory manifesto would be finally to provide some real meat on the bones - to pull off the trick of the 2007 Conservative Party Conference and provide a few memorable policies which answer voter's questions of "OK, the Tories are for change, but what does that change mean in practice?". It was hard policy that should have won the day today - but instead the philosophy dominated. It was a manifesto that sparks debate, not a rallying of voters behind a clear plan for change.

However committed the Tories are to this new philosophy and however laudable it may be - their change is more of style than of substance. It didn't answer the Tories main questions. What change? Where the substance? Even if the substance is there (and I haven't read its 130 odd pages) - the headline messages are not ones to persuade swing voters. A call for action assumes that voters are engaged. They are not. They are disillusioned and the answer to the expenses scandal is not "well, OK, we do get things wrong and we need more of your help to do it".

And Grayling struggled to defend it to Adam Boulton. Power to the people is all very well - Margaret Thatcher flirted with it - but what if they demand too much (very possible with no money in the coffers) or what if Cameron and his government don't agree. I believe that people want better government - properly empowered local government - not for the buck to be passed to them as citizens. Citizen action groups, referendums on council tax skirt round the issue.

Power to the people - real and meaningful power to the people - is delivered via bold democratic reform. The manifesto delivers none of that. Cameron claimed that politicians have promised too much in the past. This change to society is hardly conservative or shy in its promises. The challenges of government could quickly puncture his big vision of big society if he ends up ignoring it or not giving up real power.

Above all, I am certain that this manifesto will be seen as an opportunity missed. What the Tories needed was clarity. We didn't get it. It's a manifesto that might help the Tories limp across the line. But nothing more.

PREDICTION: Conservative majority of 15

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Trouble in the marginals...

A new poll out today confirms the scale of the task in Labour held marginal seats. The seats that David Cameron must win if he is to overhaul the 117 seats needed to get a majority of one.

The poll underlines the irrelevance of the national polls. It states the obvious, but it's important to underline the fact that David Cameron has to win in seats where Labour has held high levels of support since 1997 and, more often, since 1992. Areas that have got used to returning a Labour MP for four elections.

The polling suggests that in many of these constituencies - principally in the North - the Conservatives have an estimated 5.5% swing from Labour to Conservative. Put crudely, this will only be enough to secure around half of the seats (principally in the South East) in their target list of 117. The seats requiring a swing of more than 5.5% are mostly in the North... places like Bury, Warrington, Dudley. And they need them all to win. No question.

To get an overall majority the Conservatives need a swing of 6.9% in marginal seats, so this shows them falling short. The topline figures for voting intentions in these seats are CON 38%(+1), LAB 41%(nc), LDEM 11%(nc). To put that into context, for this particular group of seats (I assume by design rather than co-incidence) the required 6.9% swing equates to the two parties being exactly neck-and-neck. So in theory, if the Conservatives are ahead in MORI’s marginals surveys, they should have an overall majority. In practice of course that assumes Lib-Dem marginals behave the same as these ones, which is somewhat dubious assumption, so in reality the Conservatives could need a bigger or smaller swing against Labour, depending on how they do against the Lib Dems.

Election nights always surprise. But it just doesn't look possible that the Tories will win all those seats. It convinces me to scale back my prediction into Hung Parliament territory. The Great Unknown (never mind the Great Ignored) is Labour turnout and whether the Lib Dem vote or expenses fury to "Other" candidates takes votes off the Tories in those marginal seats, snatching their precious marginal wins from their grasp.

PREDICTION: Conservatives 4 short of a majority.