Two opinion polls tonight have got the Conservative activists who now dominate politicalbetting.com buzzing. ICM shows the Tories nine points ahead (40-31) while YouGov reportedly shows the Conservatives a massive sixteen points clear (43-27). The Liberal Democrats are on 16% with YouGov and 20% with ICM.
Clearly, if the YouGov figures were repeated in a General Election, the Conservatives would win a large majority -possibly a landslide but ICM's figures would leave the Tories with a tiny majority or just short of a majority.
The other "given" on these figures is that the General Election is off until the summer of 2010. This may of course merely prolong the agony for Labour but it also offers Gordon Brown two years to turn things round. To me, the Conservative advantage is very far from being "locked in". We have seen the Tories over 40% before but it simply hasn't been sustained - even last week ICM had the party slipping back to 37%. Some might argue that with a prolonged period of "quiet", Labour will recover and as it does so, the pressure will shift to David Cameron who will have to manage the expectations of a Party that, if some of its more febrile activists are to be believed, believes it is certain to win and win big.
For Liberal Democrats, the key is to preserve and, if possible, strengthen the parliamentary base at the next election. When the Conservatives won in 1970 and 1979 it was predicated on a collapse in Liberal votes and seats - down to six in 1970 and just fourteen in 1979. While I don't expect or believe there will be a similar wipeout in 2010, I'm fully expecting the loss of maybe a third of the party's seats so down to 40 or so.
I am also convinced that the incoming Cameron Government will run into trouble within 18-30 months as it has to ride the twin tigers of the public and party faithful's expectations of change/improvement and the disastrous state of the public finances which, I suspect, will preclude Osborne from doing anything too radical. Of course, there will be a change of personnel in Government but change that is meaningful to the public takes time (think a turning supertanker) and the question is whether people will have the patience.
This is where the Liberal Democrats may have their next "opportunity". In both 1972-73 and 1981-82, it was the Liberals, rather than Labour, who took advantage of Tory misfortunes (remember Sutton & Cheam and of course Crosby). As Cameron's Government, either through ineptitude or misfortune, hits trouble, the Liberal Democrats must be placed to take full advantage if a defeated Labour party enters a prolonged period of internal re-evaluation.
This is one of the reasons I think the Party made the right choice in choosing Nick Clegg as leader. The world won't end (I hope) with the 2010 General Election and the Liberal Democrats have to think beyond that to the politics of the Cameron era. With Labour in probable disarray, the opposition to Cameron will come from the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg.
By 2012-13, it may well be that tonight's mood of unrestrained hubris among Tory activists will be a distant memory as the truth about politics begins to dawn. Politics is as much about the management of failure (yours) as against the management of expectation (the public's). The electorate may soon forget why they voted for you and will soon find lots of reasons why they won't.
However, anyone who thinks Samantha Cameron should be measuring curtains for 10 Downing Street forgets the power of an incumbent Government. Gordon Brown may already have the giveaway Budgets of 2009 and 2010 in mind but he now needs stability, a few "quiet" months - it may be part of his "misfortune" that he doesn't get them..