Alex Massie

So, Britain, What the Hell is Going On?

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As Sunder Katwala tweeted* this evening, years from now children will ask: Daddy what were you doing the weekend the Liberal Democrats were winning the election?

Tonight's Yougov poll reports that the Liberals are in the lead on 33%, a point ahead of the Conservatives with Labour languishing on 26%. If the election actually produced these results on a uniform swing (which it won't) we'd have a ticket to Crisisville as the Tories would win 251 seats, Labour 230 and the Liberal Democrats 137. Hello electoral reform!

So what the hell is going on? Obviously the exposure on the national stage - and the opportunity to look an equal player rather than a tagged-on afterthought - was an enormous boost for Nick Clegg, better still has been the tsunami of free media and positive coverage that followed all of which has helped foster a sense that it's actually perfectly respectable to vote Liberal Democrat. The liberals, after all, have suffered from a kind of collective action problem: there are plenty of people who'd be happy to consider them only if they could be sure that sufficient numbers of other people were also prepared to endorse the third party. Absent that assurance it's just a wasted vote. Well maybe not anymore.

Perhaps that's happening now. Because otherwise it seems silly that everything we know about British political life can be turned on its head simply by a personable young chap saying "Hang on, you do realise I'm not one of the other two?" And yet that's what seems to have happened and with just 18 days until polling time there's not much time for the madness to wear off. Besides, as John Rentoul and Iain Martin each argue, if the Lib Dems can win the approval of 33% of voters today why shouldn't they rise to, I don't know, 36% by election day? Just because something can't happen doesn't mean it won't.

No surprise then that Gordon has been attacking the Lib Dems today. But I don't know if this will have much effect. People aren't taking another look at the Lib Dems because they like their policies, they're doing so because they loathe the government and remain unconvinced by the Conservatives. Sure, the Liberal proposal to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000 is popular with 66% of voters and gives Clegg and Cable something that's easy to talk about and easy to sell but this isn't why the Lib Dems are surging either.

This then is Brown's great achievement: taking Labour into third place. At least for the time being. Lost a little amidst the Cleggerama is the fact that Labour are polling at 26%. That's actually worse than they did in the 1983 general election. At present, if flesh were put on today's bones come election time, Labour would celebrate their worst result, in terms of vote-share, since 1922.

Exhaustion and an unpopular Prime Minister will help contribute to that but both main parties - as we used to refer to them, oh, four days ago - seem crippled by the low reputation of politics. The public, not without some reason, loathes Westminster and much of the political class that sits there. Somehow, however, the Lib Dems are less affected by this withering scorn. Among other things they are the party for people who don't like politics** and politicians and, these days, that's a lot of people.

This being so it's not actually impossible to suppose that Clegg's ratings will remain sky-high and that the Liberals could have their own best result since 1983 when the old SDP-Liberal Alliance won 25% of the vote.

Certainly their current message that it' OK not to vote for parties you don't like seems both perfectly sensible and fitting for our times even if it also asks voters not to look too closely at the Liberals' own policies for fear that you'll find something daft or ruinously expensive lurking there. (Though, again, it should be stressed that their approach to civil liberties is markedly more appealling than anything offered, alas, by the Tories. Labour, of course, are a disgraced cause in these matters.)

Can it last? Surely not! But let's enjoy the nuttiness before it fades.

*Sunder's feed is here and, for that matter, mine is here.

**This is one reason why people in the professional - that is, media - racket often disdain and sneer at the Lib Dems. There's also the yoghurt-knitting but that's another matter entirely.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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