by Alex Massie

Hello everyone and many thanks to Andrew for the invitation to help mind the store while he takes a well-deserved breather. My day blog is at The Spectator but it's nice to moonlight occasionally...

The big news here in Blighty is the Tories vanishing lead in the opinion polls. As recently as December David Cameron enjoyed a 13 point lead; yesterday a poll was published that had the Tories on 37% of the vote and Labour on 35%. Since, thanks to the quirks of the current constituency boundaries, the Tories need to win by six or seven points to secure a majority, this result, if repeated at the election, would actually give Gordon Brown a victory that once seemed impossible.

The good news is that this means the election is going to be more interesting than once seemed likely. A betting man should still favour Mr Cameron, not least because the underlying fundamentals remain in his favour. So what's caused the Tory wobble? A mixture of complacency (a traditional Tory vice) and confusion, principally. What are the Tories really for? I wrote about this for the Daily Beast yesterday and Iain Martin has a measured judgement on the rallying call Cameron delivered to the Tories' Spring Forum yesterday:

David Cameron went to his party’s spring forum in Brighton with a rather serious problem. His poll lead has melted. His party’s campaign since the start of the year has been incoherent and ineffectual. Thus, once again the Tory leader found himself required (by dint of his own recent miscalculations) to make a big speech aimed at starting a fight back.

How did he do? It’s had some rave reviews, but I must admit that as a whole I thought it quite mixed in quality. Yes, parts were pretty punchy and fiery, with flashes of passion that suggest he’ll fight hard in the campaign proper. Overall, though? “Good, but not really great,” was how one friend of Cameron’s put it. That’s probably a fair summary.

Where it did work for him was in the delivery of clear messages in a very straightforward fashion. This is what Labour has understood brilliantly in its campaign so far (”take a second look at Labour, give the Tories a long hard look”). Elements of the Tory high command seemed to think they could get through a campaign without doing their version of the obvious stuff that works and wins in democratic elections. Instead, what they ended up with in the last seven weeks was a confusing cacophony with no easily understood story voters could comprehend.

The shrinking gap with Labour does seem rather to have energized Cameron, to have made him realize anew that he is actually in a fight. As a consequence, the Tory campaign seems a bit more disciplined and clearheaded in the last 48 hours. He’s decided to fight back by presenting the election as a straightforward choice between “five more years of Brown and change with Cameron.”

Quite. The Tories began the year with the slogan "We Can't Go On Like This" and, yup, finally they seem to have realised that this messge is equally applicable to their own faltering campaign. Time for Dave and his boys to get their game faces on. With just nine weeks to go before the likely May 6th election this is no time for mucking about.

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