Headline news from Britain today is a poll that puts the third-party Liberal Democrats ahead of the Tories and Labour in what is now clearly a three-way electoral race. (The BPIX poll for the Mail on Sunday had the following results: Liberal Democrats 32; Tories 31; Labour 28.) This is only one of four polls, but three of them show a strong surge for the Lib Dems and a sharp fall for the Tories, and all four show the parties within a few percentage points of each other.
Will this surge for the Lib Dems last, or even accelerate in the 18 days left before the May 6 election? Most pundits expect not, but none of them are very confident of this. The best analysis I’ve seen is by the YouGov pollster, Stephan Shakespeare, on Tim Montgomerie’s Conservative Home blog. Here’s the link. To Shakespeare’s three reasons for thinking the Lib Dem surge just might continue, I would add a fourth: Unlike other cases where third parties suddenly surge from nowhere, the Lib Dems are deeply rooted in British political life and history. They have a nationwide organization, and much of local government is under their control. They have more credibility and so more lasting power than other “fringe” parties. And because they are the most “herbivore” of the three parties, very few voters really dislike them.
If the surge does continue, though, it’s terrible news for the Tories. As the above figures show, they are taking far more votes from the Tories than from Labour. According to one psephologist, the Lib Dems only begin to win significant numbers of Labour seats when their national total rises to 40 per cent. Until then, they cut mainly into the likely number of Tory seats — in part because the Tories had hoped to gain seats from them, which won’t now happen.
Why is this surge happening? Almost everyone agrees that it’s the result of a strong (if largely content-free) performance by the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, in the televised debate of party leaders last Thursday. He emerged from it with an approval rating of 72 percent — compared to 19 percent for David Cameron and 18 percent for Gordon Brown. Everyone is wondering why Cameron agreed to have Clegg in the debates, since, as Shakespeare pointed out, his mere presence in the debate elevated him to major-party status. Even if he had performed badly, he would have won simply by showing up. Apparently Cameron wanted to show that the new Tory party supports such ideas as “transparency” and open politics. It may cost him dear.
It may, but that’s not yet certain. As Harold Wilson said: “A week is a long time in politics.” It’s a three-horse race. The Lib Dems may fall back. Either Clegg or (more likely) Gordon Brown may implode. Cameron may get into his stride. He’s an able politician who is said to be best in a crisis. And he has almost three weeks to change the game.