The truth about who will win the next general election

David Cameron, Nigel Farage, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg

As a political journalist I am often asked by taxi drivers, "who is going to win the next election?"

And for years I have tended to blether on about the direction of the opinion polls and the mood at Westminster without actually committing myself.

But now it is so much easier.

I tell the truth.

I say I have not the faintest idea what is going to happen.

Never in my career has politics felt so uncertain. I do not know who will form the next government, what that government will look like, and how long it will last. I do not even know if the United Kingdom will still be the same.

For much of the last year a consensus has existed - such as it was - that Labour had the best chance of winning.

Taxi sign

It remained a few points ahead in the polls. The psephological vagaries of our electoral system meant that a marginal poll lead for Labour would produce a pretty solid parliamentary majority.

Some in the party assumed that with the support of disaffected Lib Dems and a few Tory defectors Labour could creep over the line with just 36% of the vote.

And that was the conclusion of many Conservative MPs. Few thought they had a realistic chance of winning in May 2015. Chatter in the corridors at Westminster would often turn to the prospects of a life beyond politics.

Yet in the last week even that consensus has dissipated.

Labour doubts

A couple of opinion polls have put the Conservatives two points ahead of Labour, the first time for two years. ICM put the Conservatives on 33%, Labour 31%. Lord Ashcroft's poll had the Conservatives on 34%, Labour 32%. The polls appeared to reflect a retreat by Labour rather than a surge by the Conservatives, alongside steady progress for UKIP.

David Axelrod Ed Miliband and David Axelrod started work on Labour's election campaign this week

For Labour, these polls have added to existing jitters among some of its MPs; their doubts about the party's policy direction, its strategy and yes, its leader, Ed Miliband.

Talk has turned among some from optimism about an outright Labour majority to whether the party could live with minority government, unburdened by coalition with the Lib Dems.

And an even greater weight of expectation has been placed on the shoulders of the party's new American election strategist, David Axelrod, the former Obama aide who is here for the first time this week. He watched prime minister's questions and had dinner with Mr Miliband on Wednesday before meeting the Shadow Cabinet on Thursday.

For the Conservatives, the polls have put wind in their sails and steadied the ship.

Downing Street normally insists that there is only one poll that matters - namely the general election - but this week they were more than happy to highlight the latest numbers.

Tory spring

The polls have encouraged the sense of discipline that has emerged on the Tory backbenches in recent months, a realisation that David Cameron is not going anywhere however much he may disappoint some of them, that endless rows and rebellions do little to make their seats secure, that the improving economy may one day pay political dividends.

Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer's decision to stand down triggered a by-election

So Tories have left Westminster for the pre-election break with a spring in their step. They hope this will be enough momentum to see them through the European and local elections towards the new parliamentary session and the Newark by-election next month.

But - and it is a big but - a couple of opinion polls do not a Tory spring make.

As one Tory MP said: "These polls are fabulous. They change everything. At least until the next disaster."

The European elections next week will be tough for the Tories. However much the result has been priced in to the political market, the party is still expected to take a hit with some polls suggesting it might come third.

And Tory MPs and candidates will look at the real votes that were cast in the elections, match them to their constituencies and work out their chances. And if the prognosis is grim, they will demand changes of David Cameron, not necessarily of personnel but certainly of policy, particularly on Europe.

'Belief'

The Tory leadership is banking on the Newark by-election casting a shroud of self-discipline over any post-election panic, ordering all MPs north to campaign at least three times, with the hint that any outstanding zeal might be taken into account in the forthcoming reshuffle.

Nigel Farage holding a pint during a visit to a pub in Bath Nigel Farage's decision not to stand in the Newark by-election cheered Tory MPs

Team Cameron hope that by holding the seat - with its 16,000 Tory majority - they can show the limit of UKIP appeal and give hope to hundreds of Tory campaigners across the country. They say they have been working the seat hard for some time in anticipation of Patrick Mercer's departure. And they claim Nigel Farage's decision not to stand suggests UKIP thinks it will not win.

But some Conservative MPs fear it is a tactical mistake for the party to put all its eggs into the Newark basket. They note that funny things happen in by-elections, that huge majorities can disappear in an instant, that UKIP could carry its momentum from euro-election success into the Nottinghamshire countryside. And a first MP for UKIP would be a huge political moment.

My point is that a couple of positive opinion polls do not necessarily mark a sea change in politics. But there will be some short term consequences.

The polls have begun to persuade some Conservatives that it is at least possible that they could win the next election. That change in belief could have a huge impact on morale and discipline, at least for a while.

"The fact that we might just have a dog in this fight is crucial," one MP told me. "It gives us belief."

Economic recovery

Among Labour MPs there is now a hope that these polls will focus minds among their party leadership. In recent months some have talked of complacency, unclear strategy and an uncertainty of what to sell on the doorstep. They hope these polls will send a shiver of fear down the spines of those working in Ed Miliband's office and encourage them to come up with an election-winning message and direction PDQ.

Labour Party election broadcast Labour took aim at Nick Clegg in a party election broadcast

But above all these latest polls suggest that whatever happens the general election will be close and that another coalition is a likely outcome and - here's the paradox - that coalition will be harder to achieve than ever before.

I speak not of the personality clashes between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers and the resurgent tribal animosities between the parties' backbenches, nor of the growing antipathy between Labour and the Lib Dems as evidenced by Labour's recent party election broadcast mocking the "shrinking Nick Clegg".

No, I am pointing to the simple, obvious fact that the next coalition, if there is one, will be formed at a time of economic recovery.

In 2010 there was a sense of crisis that allowed the politicians and the public to support a coalition coming together "for the good of the country".

In 2015 any coalition would be driven by electoral arithmetic alone. It is that anticipated lack of shared national purpose that is prompting some Tory and Labour minds to wonder if they could govern as a minority.

In other words, polls come and go. But for now, all that remains is uncertainty.

James Landale Article written by James Landale James Landale Deputy political editor

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