The final party conferences before a general election are usually an opportunity to close ranks, rally the troops and trail a little of on what you plan to base your appeal to the country when the campaign proper starts.
Despite the added late-summer spice of Conservative MP Douglas Carswell’s defection to UKIP the 2014 conference season will be no different. It will though be played out against a background of uncertainty about public opinion not seen for more than a generation. The one thing we know about the election is that it must be held on 7 May. Everything between now and then is a tug of war between physics and chemistry.
The physics are the psephological facts. These say that the Conservatives will find it hard, if not impossible, to do as well as (never mind improve on) the share of the vote they achieved in May 2010 before the scale and duration of the austerity measures the coalition introduced became clear.
Similarly, Labour will be hard-pressed to perform worse than it did when it seemed exhausted after 13 years in power and was led by Gordon Brown. Factor in Labour’s advantage over the Tories in converting votes into seats under current constituency boundaries and all signs point to Ed Miliband emerging as the leader of the largest party and, perhaps, even at the head of a majority Labour government.
The prospect of this is where chemistry comes into play. Many Conservatives – and enough Labour people – wonder whether voters will brush aside David Cameron (who many think looks and acts as a British PM should, even if they disagree with him) for Miliband, who seems less obviously to belong in the company of President Obama or Chancellor Merkel.
The fact that these two sets of forces are so finely poised is why the election seems too close to call. Take the prediction model developed by Stephen Fisher, the Oxford academic behind recent accurate election night exit polls. He has compared polls taken in the run-up to previous general elections with the actual results of those elections and has come up with his prediction model for the next election based on the parties’ current polling averages. His latest calculation says there is a 53 per cent chance of the Tories getting a majority or being the largest party in a hung parliament and a 47 per cent chance of Labour doing the same. That is close to a coin toss.
If either of the two main parties falls short of a majority (Fisher is showing a 51 per cent probability of this) they may find it difficult to form a stable government with anyone else. Current polling suggests the Lib Dems could lose half or more of their 56 seats, making their contribution to a coalition insufficient whoever they support. This could leave Labour or the Tories having to deal with Scottish and Welsh Nationalists or Democratic Unionists or Greens, and who knows, even Carswell and a UKIP colleague or two. The chances of either main party then surviving a full five-year parliament would be correspondingly slim. The era of uncertainty may be here to stay.
Rick Nye is managing director of Populus