The general election campaign is now well under way. But with less than three weeks before we go to the polls, what does the campaign so far tell us about the likely outcome on 6 May? And are the Lib Dems now a serious contender?
A few weeks ago it looked like a Tory victory was a certainty, although there was at least a chance that they would not secure an overall majority, leaving a hung parliament.
So David Cameron seemed very likely to be our new leader. Gordon Brown was fighting to remain as Prime Minister, against a general feeling of an electorate looking for change. And Nick Clegg appeared to have his hopes pinned solely on a post election role as leader of a small third party holding the balance of power
But following Thursday’s debate, which brought the three leaders together in a first for British television, the opinion polls are now showing a different picture. Support for the Liberal Democrats has surged on the back of Clegg’s strong performance. And, if the polls are to be believed, there is now little between the three major parties.
Opinion polls do come, of course, with a very large health warning. There is a margin of error inherent in taking the views of a small sample and extrapolating to an election result. And when they go to the ballot box many people will vote tactically or simply choose not vote for a party that they don’t think has a chance for winning the election.
And haven’t we been here before in the early days of an election campaign? A third party making a strong showing, media talk of unprecedented results and predictions of the breaking of the mould of British politics? But come election day it has always been the two main parties that took the seats, not the SDP/ Liberals/ Alliance.
The electoral arithmetic does become more complex with three strong parties. A rise in Lib Dem support is likely to affect the Tories most. It could make some of their target seats much more difficult to win from Labour. And of course some of their key contests come against Clegg’s party in any case. Labour wouldn’t be too unhappy to see a small increase in the Lib Dem vote, although would become more worried if the current polls are repeated.
What is clear is that the Lib Dems surge of support will change the approach of the other two parties over the remaining weeks of the campaign.
Gordon Brown has a delicate balance to maintain. Of course he will continue to promote himself as the man of experience whilst also attacking the Tories. And his approach of putting difficult questions to Cameron, leaving him squirming, has paid dividends so far. But he will also turn his attention onto Clegg’s policies, which won’t be easy if he sees him as a potential ally in a possible coalition.
Cameron on the other hand has to promote his plans in a much more positive manner. He can’t simply oppose any more – TV viewers saw him as a man without substance. He has to demonstrate to those looking for a change of government that he is worthy of their trust. He will also look to expose what he sees as weaknesses in Clegg’s case and to position himself as the only alternative Prime Minister.
And Nick Clegg? Well, I’m sure he will be very happy with his start to the campaign and be looking to do more of the same. But he knows that his party’s policies will come under much more scrutiny now, and that means he has to take great care. He also has to offer his positive alternatives rather than simply attacking the two party system.
A word on the smaller parties. They will have feared that the televised debate would marginalise their involvement in the campaign, and that has probably proven to be the case. We have had manifesto launches by UKIP, the Greens and even the Monster Raving Lunatics – but did anyone notice?
In Scotland, the SNP will have watched their worst nightmare come to pass as potential voters heard all of the arguments apart from theirs. There is a Scottish debate to come and it will be interesting to contrast this with the UK version. More of the Scottish dimension to the election to come from me next week.
So it has been a fascinating week on the campaign trail.
Are we now truly entering a new three party politics scenario? Or will the two main parties pull away from the Lib Dems as polling day approaches? With two more televised UK debates to come, there is time for much more movement in party support before we get to May 6. And tactical voting will surely influence the results in many seats as always.
My prediction is still for a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest single party, but for some form of deal to take place between Brown and Clegg.
Could the situation change? It’s entirely possible. All is still to play for. And that will make it a very interesting time for all political observers.