Hollow joy for the Lib Dems

On the day Parliament goes into recess for Christmas, Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the state of public opinion.RED Lodge in deepest West Suffolk is not noted for being a political barometer.

On the day Parliament goes into recess for Christmas, Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the state of public opinion.

RED Lodge in deepest West Suffolk is not noted for being a political barometer. Last week, amid Conservative excitement at the crowning of their new leader and infighting at the top of the Liberal Democrats over the future of Charles Kennedy, the voters of this Forest Heath district ward went to the polls.

To be strictly accurate, 313 people - 25.79% of those eligible - cast their votes last Thursday and returned Liberal Democrat Julie Middleton, who gained the seat from the Conservatives with a majority of 62.

I've repeatedly warned that reading too much into local council by-election results is a dangerous strategy. But that didn't stop the Liberal Democrats from proclaiming a great triumph, and they also telegraphed their shock gain in the solidly Tory ward of High Barnet in the London borough of Barnet. Candidate Duncan Macdonald took his party to victory from a poor third place in 2002 with a 19.7% swing.

“This is one of the very first electoral tests of David Cameron's leadership - and the first test in London - and he has failed,” chortled Lib Dem President Simon Hughes. “The media may be obsessed with David Cameron as the Tories saviour but the public have yet to be convinced.”

Well, up to a point - because there was better news for the Conservatives at the other end of London where their candidate Vidhyacharan Ram Mohan retained Fairfield ward on a swing which would see them comfortably take control of Croydon borough from Labour in May.

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And the Conservatives made deep inroads into the Lib Dems' vote in the south and west. They scored a huge swing to take a seat in Bournemouth Borough and they were also successful in Cornwall's Carrick district. In Lewes District's Peacehaven North ward, which comes under the marginal Brighton Kemptown constituency, Labour was pushed into third place when the Tories held the seat on a 6.7% swing from the Lib Dems.

On the bottom rung of the local government ladder, Patrick Chung gained Minden ward for the Conservatives on Bury St Edmunds town council.

Analysis by the Press Association of 14 comparable local government contests during December suggests a projected 5.4% nationwide Tory lead over Labour. The line-up calculated on the basis of 12 by-elections where all three major parties fought both times is: Conservative 40.0%, Labour 33.0%, Liberal Democrat 21.1%.

A YouGov opinion poll for The Daily Telegraph on the same day put the figures at Conservative 38% Labour 36% and Liberal Democrat 18%.

These findings indicate Mr Cameron's election as Tory leader has paved the way for a return to traditional two-party politics, with the Lib Dems trailing in third place.

So who do we believe - the voters of Red Lodge and those in three other Suffolk district council wards gained by the Lib Dems this year, the December average compiled by the Press Association, or YouGov?

I'm backing YouGov because we do not know what local factors were at work in the council by-elections. And other opinion polls around the same time confirmed the Conservatives have picked up a bounce through choosing David Cameron.

However, Tory activists who believe the corner has been turned shouldn't forget that due to the electoral arithmetic and constituency boundaries, the Conservatives will need to be about 8% ahead in the polls simply to pick up the same number of seats as Labour.

Analysing the spate of opinion polls since Cameron's election, Internet site Electoral Calculus says that if a General Election was held today, Labour would have a net loss of 23 seats, the Tories would gain 51, the Lib Dems would lose 29 MPs and the Nationalists pick up one, resulting in an overall majority of 20 for Labour. Liberal Democrat losses would be 25 to the Tories, three to Labour and one to the Nationalists.

That's why Lib Dems in Parliament are in panic mode and have blamed leader Charles Kennedy for the shambolic performance of the party since May's election.

Over the weekend, Mr Cameron made a cheeky, direct appeal to Lib Dems to switch sides and back his party.

Describing himself as “a liberal Conservative,” Mr Cameron made clear his pitch was not only to Lib Dem supporters and voters, but also to MPs and councillors who might be ready to defect. He maintained that together, the Tories and Lib Dems could build “a modern, progressive, liberal, mainstream opposition to Labour.”

Speaking in Hereford - a former Tory seat lost to the Lib Dems in 1997 which he must win back to have any hope of forming a Government - Mr Cameron said that the two parties now had similar views on a number of issues.

“There is a new home for Liberal Democrat voters - and so a real prospect of a change of Government,” he insisted. “Because today we have a Conservative Party that believes passionately in green politics, that is committed to decentralisation and localism, that supports open markets and that is prepared to stand up for civil liberties and the rule of law and which wants Britain to be a positive participant in the EU, as a champion of liberal values.'

Since 1997, Liberal Democrats have made major inroads into Tory support, supplanting the Conservatives in second place to Labour in much of the north, Scotland and Wales and snatching seats in their heartlands in the south of England.

But they failed to make the further gains they were hoping for in May's General Election, when the Tories actually won back Lib Dem seats like Weston-super-Mare, Guildford, Devon West and Ludlow.

With Lib Dems holding 20 of the 126 seats Mr Cameron needs to gain at the next election to secure an overall majority, and with the Lib Dem vote larger than the Labour majority in 103 more, wooing third-party supporters is a key part of his strategy to win power.

The real test of whether David Cameron is near to seeing off the Liberal Democrats will be a parliamentary by-election. If the Tories can achieve what have failed to do since February 1989 and swat away the Lib Dems, then the Conservatives will be justified in believing they are in with a shout of at least pegging back Labour at the next election.

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