After months of being regarded as a virtual shoo-in, British Conservative leader David Cameron suddenly has a fight on his hands to secure the keys to 10 Downing Street come election day – widely expected to take place on May 6. He came out swinging hard this week, calling Labour leaders "appalling people" and demanding heightened ethics rules.
A string of polls revealing a narrowing in Britain's general election race has suggested that, even after 13 years of an increasingly unpopular Labour government, crucial numbers of voters are still reluctant to swap the devil they know while a precarious economic recovery continues.
Although recent figures suggested that the Labour fight-back may be stalling, the public reaction to the new British budget released today and to Britain's first US-style televised debates in April will be decisive. In releasing the new budget, which cut the deficit forecast, treasury chief Alistair Darling aimed to spin Mr. Brown's government as a prudent financial steward that prevented a depression and can secure the country's economic recovery. But Brown still lags in polls.
Economy breathes life into Labour Party
How has Britain's battered and bruised prime minister, Gordon Brown, managed to come within a fighting chance of clinging to power? It's about the economy, stupid.
"The turning point was the publication at the end of January of final- quarter economic figures for 2009 which showed .01 percent growth," says Andrew Hawkins of polling firm Comres. The end of Britain's economic contraction "seemed to mark that point between Conservative leads averaging in double figures ... and the period after where the average shrunk to 6 percent."
Despite the wafer-thin nature of economic growth, Labour has argued that its stimulus package has worked while playing on fears that budget cuts by a new Tory government would jeopardize recovery. A poll by YouGov published March 18 in The Sun showed the Tory lead was still intact but remained fragile. It had Tory support at 36 percent, with Labour at 32 percent.
Economic issues still tend to overshadow other controversies – ranging from allegations that Mr. Brown bullies his staff to admissions by the Conservatives' wealthy chairman that he does not pay British taxes on foreign earnings. The Tories have also been learning the pitfalls of basing an election campaign around their charismatic leader.
David Cameron, at least, is an asset
A poster in which the party promised to "cut the deficit, not the NHS [National Health Service]" was overly defensive, according to Mr. Hawkins. "It bombed. More importantly, it featured David Cameron, who has limited appeal outside of London and England's southeast."
At least Mr. Cameron remains an asset to his party. Brown's deep unpopularity is continuing to harm Labour. A poll March 14 for the Guardian found that only 38 percent of people who voted Labour in 2005 – when Tony Blair was still leader – want to see the party win a strong majority now. Come the election, the Conservatives need to capture about 135 extra seats in the House of Commons from Labour and other parties to win a majority. Labour currently holds 346 of the Commons' 646 seats – 57 more seats than all the other parties combined. The Tories have 193 and the Liberal Democrats, 63.
Kevin Foster, a Conservative candidate in a tight race for the Labour-held seat of Coventry South in the English midlands, refers to the US presidential race when asked about his party's faltering support.
"Look at what happened with Barack Obama and John McCain... Around the time of the Republican Convention, it was close. Then a few weeks later the parties were fairly wide apart and Obama went on to score a decisive victory," he says. He insists Cameron is an asset to his own campaign in Coventry South, traditionally a Labour-supporting area with an industrial heritage.
"I think that for a lot of people, David Cameron is fresh and new and is very much someone who has changed the Tory Party," adds Mr. Foster.
Elsewhere in the constituency of Rochester and Strood, would-be Labour MP Teresa Murray presses home her party's mantra that the Tories are not a "credible alternative." She adds: "What has brought people back to Labour has been our strong management of the economy."
Ms. Murray also hits out at the "personalization" of British politics and the "disgraceful" way the media have focused on aspects of Brown's personality.
Both Murray and Foster have picked up on a crucial undercurrent of the election campaign – widespread public disenchantment with politicians of all hues arising from last year's furor over widespread manipulation of parliamentary expense claims by members of Parliament. That controversy, says Roger Mortimore of pollsters Ipsos/Mori, has injected an "unknown quality" into this election.
"I would expect there to be more strange and unexpected results in the election," he says. "The more that a candidate has been personally involved in it, then the more it will be likely that they will suffer ... but there are also large numbers of genuinely hardworking politicians being badly smeared."
Panning for votes, showcasing their wives
With hostility toward Britain's political classes running high, it's not surprising that party leaders are eager to grasp any new opportunities to increase their appeal.
For example, some suspect that the wives of Cameron and Brown have been wheeled out more often than they would otherwise have been if it were not for the recent narrowing of the race.
April's three televised debates – which will involve Brown, Cameron, and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats dealing in turn with domestic, international, and economic issues – is another.
The live confrontations will showcase the leaders' contrasting political styles. Whether they, or the budget, will allow Labour a real shot at closing the gap on their Tory opponents remains to be seen.
Like others, however, pollster Hawkins suspects that a turning point may have been reached for the apparently stalled Tory campaign. "I think that they may well be on their way back now after reaching their low-water mark," he says. "My expectation would be for a small and working Conservative majority rather than a hung parliament."