Two weeks left to go until we find out the result – or, at least, the raw ingredients in terms of seats from which a result must be cooked up. It’s fair to say that our political class is tired. This is one of the longest campaigns in living memory – the Fixed Terms Parliament Act having set the polling day in stone long ago – and also one of the closest. The campaign has been a marathon, one that is taking its toll on even hardened vote-chasers, and it is starting to show.
The Tories live in a state of semi-permanent, bemused frustration. They have long believed that the election campaign proper would provide them with a polling breakthrough – that the more voters saw of Ed Miliband, the less likely they’d be to vote for him and his party. In this hubristic presumption CCHQ was given support and succour by the right wing press. The Mail, the Express and the Murdoch stable of papers have all gone out of their way to depict Ed Miliband as a range of soap-opera villains – he has been weak, he has been ruthless, he has been borderline autistic and he has been a good-for-nothing Lothario. An Eastenders character would have struggled to cover so much ground in such a short space of time. And for Tory high command this was to be their secret weapon. With the press firmly on side (despite a rocky relationship with Cameron for much of this Parliament) Ed Miliband would be ground to dust and, with him, any hope of a historic one-term opposition for Labour. It hasn’t worked.
Yes, many people retain deep and grave doubts about Miliband’s suitability for the top job. And no, a few teenage girls on Twitter aside (checkout the #Milifandom if you haven’t already), there is no sweeping and excitable non- partisan enthusiasm for Ed of the sort once enjoyed by Tony Blair. But somehow, thus far, the personalisation of this contest appears to have been blunted – quite possibly it has backfired. Because for all the bluster and the mockery, Ed Miliband is a well-educated, intelligent and reasonably articulate professional politician; he simply isn’t the extremes he has been portrayed as. And as the public have got to know him a little better, the increasingly shrill tone of the coverage – and of Tory spokespersons’ attacks – has felt off-beat and more than a little silly. And so, thus far, no satisfying break in the polls to offer hope for Cameron and Crosby.
Despite the excitement/dismayed reactions last night on the back of two polls showing the Conservatives four points ahead in short succession – there were also two polls out showing Labour leads. The time to pay attention will be when the polls start consistently showing one party ahead – right now they remain evenly balanced.
That’s not to say that it won’t happen, that there won’t be a last minute drift to the Tories that (somehow) picks them up enough seats to keep them in Government. Plenty of Cameroon loyalists talk sagely of ‘shy Tories’ and call to mind 1992’s last-minute shift to Major. They are also beginning to talk of more esoteric influences to justify their optimism – including Netanyahu’s unexpected win in Israel earlier this year. Tory canvassers and members of Grant Shapps’ Team 2015 also claim that the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon’s potential influence over a Miliband Government are increasingly being raised, unprompted, by worried voters. All of this might be true, but whatever the reality ‘on the doorstep’ this is not where the Conservatives hoped to be at this stage in the campaign and it is likely that any autopsy in the event of a defeat would dwell extensively on the level to which Tory strategists believed their own anti-hype about Ed Miliband and made poor choices as a result of that strategic misunderstanding.
Whilst Conservative nerves might be fraying they have at least – in terms of the SNP and their future role – managed to secure one of the few rolling stories of this election. Labour have been skittish during the campaign – flitting from one big(ish) idea to the next with little work done to ensure that the messaging really sinks in. They scored early with their promise to end non-dom tax status but have failed to develop this into a coherent and cohesive theme. They still lack a convincing, over-arching narrative on the economy that is capable of resonating with voters as both responsible and representing real change and the party’s spokespeople – unnerved by being put in the uncomfortable position of being attacked from the Left – struggle to counter either the Tories’ unfunded NHS promises or the anti-austerity rhetoric of the ‘progressive troika’. In many ways, Labour’s lacklustre campaign has been given something of a free-pass simply on the basis that it is marginally better than the Tories’.
As with his character, Ed Miliband also benefits, in terms of perceptions of the campaign, from lower expectations. Tory backbenchers expect and demand that Cameron deliver them, at least, the status quo – guaranteed survival would rest on him achieving the almost impossible, a majority. Labour, on the other hand, has essentially abandoned the hope that they will ‘win’ in the conventional sense. Yes, they want and expect to be in power. But no, they do not any longer expect to single-handedly command the will of the House. Instead a coalition of some variety is possible, minority Government propped up by the hodge-podge Commons more likely. And despite the relentless attacks of the Conservatives, the SNP’s breathtaking advance lends Miliband both a tactical and a strategic advantage on May 8th. Tactical because Sturgeon and Salmond have ruled out working with Cameron. Strategic because, having pledged to lock the Tories out of Downing Street, the SNP will have almost no real say over legislation – they can abstain, sure, but if they bring down a Labour Government by voting against them then they’ll have broken their promise to Scotland. Sturgeon won’t be able to force ‘red lines’ such as unilateral disarmament because she will have very little space in which to manoeuvre – no matter how many of Scotland’s 59 MPs belong to her, the House will remain to have a majority in favour of Trident.
We’ve just a fortnight more of this to enjoy and endure. And so far there is no reason to believe the next two weeks will be substantively different from the last two. Doggedly each main party will plug away – Labour at policy announcements, Conservatives at doomsday prophesies – and determinedly, it seems, the public will refuse to reward either of them with a lead in the polls. Neither side is in any position to take satisfaction, despite the months of campaigning they’ve put in to get this far. Under normal circumstances, of course, all of this would be music to the ears of the Liberal Democrats – set to benefit from the death-lock between Labour and Tories. But, in a sign of just how toxic and damaged the Lib Dems now are, there’s no rejoicing at the top of Britain’s third party – only blind panic that their Leader may, after all, lose his Sheffield seat. Whatever the frustration of senior strategists on both sides it is nothing compared to the horror, surprise and genuine irritation of the Lib Dem leadership at just how little credit they’ve got for the last five years and just how much blame they have. And that anger and disappointment has consequences way beyond May 7th – because deep down David Cameron is counting on them to do a deal once again and on current showing it’s hard to see why they would even take his calls. Frustration may well, therefore, be the name of the game for senior Conservatives long after the votes are counted and the result – supposedly – announced.