A growing band of us do not believe the opinion polls. We cannot entirely explain our doubt. We argue backwards from our hunch — that the voters do not wish to give Tony Blair anything like the thumbs-up they gave him before — to an array of rationalisations about how, whatever today’s polls may suggest, tomorrow’s general election could go wrong for New Labour.
The relationship between the present Prime Minister and the British people has broken down. Repair is about as likely as the unsouring of soured milk. Conversations overheard — on buses, in aeroplanes, pubs and on the street — imply an attitude of widespread derision. Ministers on Question Time or Any Questions? are barely able to open their mouths in Mr Blair’s defence before their audiences begin to howl them down. On such a panel with Patricia Hewitt the other week I found myself feeling really sorry for a calm and fair-minded woman struggling to be heard as waves of hatred broke over her head.
It was not the Trade and Industry Secretary they hated. They were hating by proxy: hating the Prime Minister.
Our democracy is now — sadly — quasi-presidential. Come the general election there will be some 645 proxy-Blairs standing in constituencies across the country. Pencil in hand, electors will stare down at the barely recognised names of their Labour candidates on the ballot slip. Blair’s grinning chops will stare back. If you think this will be without effect on the result — not least on the likelihood of Labour voters bothering to make the journey to their polling station in the first place — then you are living in a different Britain from me.
None of this means the nation will love Michael Howard any more next spring (or this November) than they love him now. None of it means that Charles Kennedy can expect big new support beyond the support his Liberal Democrat party has attracted already. But it may mean (some of us believe) that, on the day, Labour will underperform while the opposition parties’ vote will be buoyant: Tory voters (however grimly) trudging down to the polling station to do their duty if only to wipe the smile off Mr Blair’s face, and Liberal Democrat converts proving less flaky than anyone guessed.
The opposition parties should proceed on the assumption, at least, that such an outcome is on the cards. With no party confident that its percentage share of the vote will be better than the high thirties, a hung parliament looks (to some of us) more imaginable than media commentary has so far suggested. This kind of talk is bound to increase. The incumbent government, of course, should have nothing to do with such chatter: it only encourages voters to experiment with the idea; but how about the two main opposition parties?
For the Tories the judgment whether to puff such speculation is difficult. It does help break a curious mental habit into which Britain and its news media have slipped: the habit of thinking that a Labour victory is somehow inevitable, even if everyone one knows detests the party. Once voters begin to suppose that this government might really be on its way out, people may take Michael Howard more seriously and listen to what he says; and since almost nobody imagines the Tories are within reach of an overall majority, coalition talk could be one way of breaking the spell of an assumed and inevitable Labour win.
But there are also dangers for Conservatives in coalition talk. From a principal opposition it sounds defeatist; and there are probably quite a number of floating voters who will only (and reluctantly) vote Conservative if they think no third way exists between Labour and the Tories. Coalition represents just such a third way, and a Liberal Democrat vote looks an obvious means of opting for it. On balance, I think the Conservatives should stick to what has always been their line: that they fight to win and will not contemplate other outcomes.
Not so the Liberal Democrats. Their existing and hoped-for supporters do not need to believe that in voting LibDem they are choosing a LibDem government; some of their supporters would actually be put off the party if they thought it was in the running for an absolute victory: they want to pat the third party on the back and kick the other two in the shins, that’s all. I can see no serious downside for Charles Kennedy in speculation that his party might become a minority partner in a coalition government, so long as he does not become identified with only one of the two major parties.
So what the dickens is Mr Kennedy doing declaring that in any coalition talks he would negotiate only with Labour? Most ordinary voters will take from this two conclusions: first that, whatever Kennedy’s private intentions, it is naive so to weaken one’s hand in advance of negotiations. Secondly (voters will think), what sort of party leader goes into an election having stated his preparedness to help the incumbents hang on to power, even if they lose? A hung parliament would be a massive humiliation for Tony Blair and his party. Is Kennedy really saying that such a man and such a party are the only forces with which he would deal? Do LibDem voters really vote to prop up a dying dispensation near the end of its days? In a single gesture Kennedy is pushing away liberally inclined former Tories who dislike Labour but remain worried about their own old party’s habits and instincts. Are these not one of the most numerous groups in Britain today?
The only possible argument I can see for Kennedy’s strange declaration is that he fears a Labour campaign tactic of painting his party as likely to let in the Tories by the back door. But if that is what he fears, why hand the Tories the same tactical opportunity: to paint him as ready to help Tony Blair sneak into Downing Street again?
The formation of a coalition would probably be followed by a second general election a year or two further down the line. Every party to coalition talks would have their eye on their image with the public; they would want to appear the reasonable ones, ready to work with any politician who shares their dedication to the national interest. By ruling out, in principle, co-operation with the Tories, Mr Kennedy is spoiling that image in advance. I cannot think what has got into him.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.