LONDON // The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, who appeared to be tottering towards electoral oblivion only three months ago, greets the New Year with a surprising spring in his political step.
Although Labour, his ruling party, still trails the Conservatives, the main opposition party, in the opinion polls, the deficit is now down to single figures. At the start of autumn it was between 16 per cent and 19 per cent. Mr Brown's own approval rating has gone up, his performances in the House of Commons have improved and, suddenly, Labour apparatchiks are daring to believe that the party might not get the drubbing they were expecting in this year's general election, likely to be held in May.
"We're not out of the woods yet, but at least we can see light at the end of the tunnel," said a senior Labour official last week. "Things looked desperate not so long ago. But we've come through the worst of the recession without as much damage as some were predicting and the Tories have really failed to spell out any policies that convince people they're for real." So, as the New Year dawns, political pundits in the United Kingdom are seriously talking about the chances of a hung parliament after the election, with the Liberal Democrats, the third largest party, holding the balance of power.
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, went out of his way to woo the Liberal Democrats in his New Year message to voters. "Let's be honest," he said. "Whether you're Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, you're motivated by pretty much the same progressive aims: a country that is safer, fairer, greener and where opportunity is more equal. "It's how to achieve these aims that we disagree about - and, indeed, between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats there is a lot less disagreement than there used to be."
Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, an opinion poll last week showed that Liberal Democrat voters would far prefer seeing their party form a coalition with Mr Brown than with the Conservatives. Mr Cameron has a more fundamental problem, though: nobody is quite sure what his party's policies are. "His biggest failure of last year remains his biggest challenge for the next," said James Landale, the BBC's deputy political editor, "and that is to answer the nagging question posed by voters and Tory members alike: namely, what would a Conservative government led by David Cameron stand for? What would it do?
"This uncertainty is reflected in David Cameron's leadership itself. In the early years, he cuddled huskies, talked about poverty and promised to protect the public services, ignoring the traditional Tory tunes of crime, immigration and Europe. But then ? he rebranded himself as Mr Austerity, the only leader ready to face up to the harsh spending cuts needed to reduce the deficit and save the economy.
"Some voters were horrified and others confused. Were the Tories promising sunshine or gloom?" Mr Brown has been able to capitalise on these misgivings, not least with the help of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's communications director, who has recently been brought back into the inner circle at No 10 Downing Street. The prime minister has appeared more confident in public and, although nobody is quite sure of how he is going to do it, has confidently predicted a halving of the country's huge deficit in the next four years while protecting spending on essential public services.
Mr Brown also came out recently with one of the year's more memorable sound bites when he accused private school-educated Mr Cameron of dreaming up his economic policy "on the playing fields of Eton". Such rhetoric had all the hallmarks of the old class war between Labour and the Conservatives and it has played well with the former's core vote in their heartlands in the north of England. In September, all the polling data suggested that the Tories had built up a small but significant four-point lead in the north for the first time since the days of Margaret Thatcher. However, polls in December showed that Labour had surged back into the lead, with 44 per cent of those saying they were certain to vote backing Mr Brown and only 28 per cent supporting Mr Cameron.
While the Conservatives retain a comfortable lead in the more populous south of England - enough, probably, to give them a basis for securing most seats in a new parliament - the situation in the north means that they would be denied a landslide. It has also given Labour hope of making inroads into Tory support in other parts of the country, although Andrew Cooper, founder of the Populus polling company, says that, as yet, there are few signs of it.
He said that although, nationally, Labour's support in the polls has increased by about five percentage points recently, the party is still only at the level of the Conservatives in 1997, when they lost heavily to Mr Blair's new-look Labour. "They have put themselves back into the game with their core vote strategy," Mr Cooper said. "But they can't win with this strategy - they can lose more manageably."
Much will hinge on the three, pre-election debates where the leaders of the three main parties will slug it out on live television, the first time such broadcasts have been staged in Britain. Both Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, are regarded as good performers on TV, while Mr Brown tends to be dour and often gets bogged down in the minutiae of an argument. "A pity he sometimes misses the wood for those arboreal details, and also fluffs names," said Michael White, political editor of The Guardian. "That sort of weakness matters in situations like this. Remember [US President] Gerald Ford saying eastern Europe would never fall under Soviet domination under his watch? Probably not; it was 1976 - and it already had.
"Don't write Brown off, all the same. These events are unpredictable. That's why people will watch them." And it is why Gordon Brown is not ready yet to start clearing out the Downing Street garage. email@example.com