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.