It wasn't supposed to be like this. An exhausted Labour Party led by an unpopular, charmless prime minister whose economic policies had helped bankrupt the country was supposed to be sleepwalking to electoral disaster. Barring calamity, David Cameron's Conservatives would win this year's British general election and win it handsomely to boot. Suddenly, however, that's no longer such a slam dunk. The Tories are wobbling and British politics is less predictable and more interesting than seemed possible just a couple of months ago.
A Sunday Times survey this week reported that the Tories hold just a two-point advantage and consequently, thanks to the quirks of the current constituency boundaries, Labour would, if this result were repeated in the election itself, emerge as the largest party.
Britain's deficit is on course to reach $275 billion this year—or nearly 13 percent of GDP, leaving Britain in a more precarious position than either Ireland or Greece and much worse off than the United States, too.
So David Cameron's speech to the Conservatives' Spring Conference in Brighton on Sunday needed to show that the party was able to put a difficult start to the unofficial campaign behind them and refocus on the battles to come.
"They don't hand general-election victories and governments on a plate to people in this country," he said. "This election was always going to be close" but "it is an election we have to win because our country is a complete mess and it is our patriotic duty to turn it around and give it a better future."
As recently as December, the Tories enjoyed a double-digit point lead in the polls and seemed set to return to government after 13 painful years in the electoral wilderness. Now a hung parliament in which no party commands a majority is the prediction of choice in the Westminster Village.
The Tories may have borrowed Barack Obama's "Vote for Change" slogan but the closer the election looms, the more the public seems to doubt the party's readiness for government.
Senior Tories admit to thinking the unthinkable: There is a real risk that the Conservative Party could lose this election. "We are up against a useless prime minister who everyone loathes, including his own cabinet," one senior figure told The Guardian this week. "And yet he is back in serious contention. That really takes some doing." Left unspoken was the ignoble thought: If we can't beat this guy, then what are we doing and what are we for?
There are no signs of any great enthusiasm for Labour or Gordon Brown, whose own ratings remain miserable, but such is the anti-politics mood in the country that the opposition have been unable to capitalize on the government's unpopularity. It's a testament to how desperate Labour's position has been that party strategists hail an improvement in Gordon Brown's approval ratings as proof that the government still has a chance of winning: These days, the prime minister’s net approval rating has improved to “only” a negative 33.
No wonder Cameron reminded voters that "every day Gordon Brown is prime minister is a gray day for our country.” The Conservatives hope to make the election a referendum on Brown, asking: "Do you want five more years of this?" For their part, Labour asks voters to "take a second look" at the government rather than "taking a chance" on the opposition.
So could there a repeat of the 1992 election, when an unpopular incumbent party led by John Major won an unexpected fourth term for the Conservatives, despite having trailed in the polls right up to Election Day? That still seems unlikely, but it's no longer unthinkable. If there's a Tory upside to Labour's resurgence, party spokesmen joke, it's that Labour can no longer run an underdog campaign.
Conventional wisdom dictates that, after 13 years in power, and with GDP per capita having actually declined on Brown's watch, Labour can't win. And, though often mocked, conventional wisdom should be right.
Britain's deficit is on course to reach $275 billion this year—or nearly 13 percent of GDP. That would leave Britain in a more precarious position than either Ireland or Greece and much worse off than the United States, too. Nor is this a one-year horror. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimated recently that U.K. debt will rise to more than 100 percent of GDP by 2014. As recently as 2004, it was less than 40 percent.
The deficit, however, is a problem for wonks, not for voters more concerned by immediate, day-to-day concerns. In any case, with mortgage rates and inflation both low, many working homeowners are better off than they were before the recession hit.
The Tories' "decontamination" strategy was designed for happier times. Focusing on issues such as the environment demonstrated how the party had changed. But that was before the great financial collapse and a return to "hard" politics. The financial crisis may have crippled Brown's reputation as an economic genius who had put an end, as he often called it, to the cycle of "boom and bust," but it also left the Conservatives foundering, torn between their instinct that "swingeing" cuts in government expenditure would be needed and their fear that the public might be spooked by such rhetoric.
The result has been a muddle, leaving even loyal Tories wondering what the party's real message is. On the one hand, the Conservatives promise to deal with the deficit more quickly than Labour, but on the other, they also promise to increase spending on health, education, and the state pension. Simultaneously, they promise to stimulate the economy by cutting taxes on new employees and reducing corporate taxes.
Something will have to give. Spending increases in some departments necessarily require greater cuts elsewhere; tax cuts for business necessarily demands that other taxes will rise if the deficit is to be halved in the next five years. Both parties know this, but Labour have had some success in suggesting that they would regret painful spending cuts while the Tories, despite their kinder, cuddlier image, would secretly relish gutting the government's spending departments.
Cameron promised the country Sunday that "we will not let you down.” Torn between a government they don't like and an opposition they do not wholly trust, British voters have just two months in which to make up their minds and decide whether the status quo is riskier than the alternative.
Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.