The surge in support for the Lib Dems adds two element of huge uncertainty into the electoral equation
Although details vary between pollsters, the position on the eve of the second debate seems to be that the Conservatives and Lib Dems are fighting it out for first place, with support somewhere in the low 30% range.
Monday night’s ComRes Tory figure, which put them on 35%, would have been regarded as terrible 10 days ago but now almost seems like a good result for the Conservatives.
Labour seems narrowly but definitely in third at the moment, with support somewhere around 26-28%.
What is remarkable so far is Labour’s sangfroid in the face of this apparently disastrous situation, compared with the Conservatives’ obvious nerves. Part of this is of course the ludicrous first-past-the-post electoral system, which could still deliver Labour the most seats in this situation. But the dynamics of campaigns can be brutal when one falls into a consistent third, and it is possible that a spiral of decline could set in.
The bright side of the situation for Labour is that to win this election, something dramatic had to happen – if the campaign ground on as it had been, with the Tory lead falling slowly, Cameron would probably have just about won enough seats to form a minority government.
Now that it is a war of movement rather than attrition, anything can happen. And perversely, despite riding so low in the polls, there seems to have been a slight shift (including among Lib Dem voters) towards regarding a Labour-led government as being a good outcome of the election.
There are two elements of huge uncertainty in the equation. One is to what extent the Lib Dem surge is sustainable until polling day (although if they are still doing well next week, that should be reflected in the postal votes being cast and therefore the result).
This is simply imponderable, and depends on the perceived outcomes of the two debates, and whether the need for an interesting narrative to tell in the media will cause the overdone adulation of Nick Clegg to be replaced by another story – of battler Brown coming through, or Cameron keeping his nerve and steering safely to victory.
The other uncertainty is more measurable. A huge amount depends on who these new Lib Dems are. Several different versions are possible. In the surges of 1974 and 1983, the Labour vote collapsed in the party’s weaker seats, sending the Liberals and Alliance into good second places in a lot of Tory territory.
If this happens again (and is mirrored by a Tory collapse in their weaker seats in urban England) it could produce a lot of Lib Dem first places. On the other hand, if novelty is a big factor, the new Lib Dems may pop up in precisely the places where it can do them the least good – places where there has been little local campaigning activity of the sort that has built up the Lib Dem strongholds. They could add a lot of votes, but few seats.
Mori’s poll for the Standard suggests deep inroads into Labour demographic territory (public sector workers, northern England) that is probably more consistent with the second theory. We must await detailed polls of the marginal seats contested between Labour and Conservatives to get a sense of what is perhaps the crucial question – which of the two parties is losing most where it counts?