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Can the British Conservatives win a majority?

That is now the question in Thursday’s British election. Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party is in deep. Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are in an unexpectedly strong position, but their surge has abated. David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, appears to be the man with momentum right now. On the current numbers, the Conservatives would still fall short of a majority. But as the first President Bush might put it, we all know what Big Mo can do for you.

I have to say I feel badly for Brown. For all his faults (and sadly, some of them were a bit too visible in the last week), he’s a smart and strong leader with decent values. His leadership was critical when the world economy began crashing in the fall of 2008 -- and would be beneficial as it tries to build structures to put us on a more sustainable footing. If he does lose, I hope the world’s leaders find a way to use his talents.

The problem is that he needed a surge in the end and instead got pushed backward. Whether “bigotgate” hurt Brown substantially, or, as seems more likely, simply created a distraction that blocked out Labour’s message, the party could afford neither.

Brown then needed a breakthrough in last Thursday’s debate. He didn’t get it. To me, he looked tired and out of gas.

Those who follow elections for a living (and I suppose I’m among them) thought Cameron was the winner because he seemed clear and optimistic and presented a strong closing statement. I agreed with Martin Kettle of the Guardian who wrote that Cameron “faced the most important job interview of his life. You may not want to know this, but my impression is that most viewers will judge that he passed. Better start getting used to it.” The polls after the debate backed that up.

Jonathan Freedland, another of my favorite British columnists (and also of the Guardian), went even further. He declared that “barring another earthquake, David Cameron is on his way to Downing Street.”

Yet those who looked at the debate more from a policy perspective thought Brown did far better. Jacob Weisberg of Slate, who is writing about the campaign for the Guardian, saw it that way. He said Brown needed to make the point that it “doesn't matter if you like me, the point is that you can rely on me, and me alone, to prevent a Greek scenario in Britain and to bring down the deficit without putting the economy back into a tailspin.” Weisberg added: “The prime minister did all this quite deftly and, in consequence, looked to me like the clear winner of the debate.”

Jacob is right on Brown’s substantive points, and maybe Brown firmed up his own supporters. But I still think he lost the debate, because making perfectly solid points against Cameron didn’t make the prime minister any more appealing. Indeed, his need to be tough and unrelenting in raising doubts about the Conservatives went cross-wise with his other urgent need, which was to make voters like him just a bit better and thus be more comfortable with having him in the leadership (and on their television sets) for another few years. I’m afraid he didn’t do that.

David Miliband, Foreign Secretary in the current Labour government – and a strong candidate for the leadership if Brown loses – sent out a tweet noting a poll of radio listeners thought Brown had won. That may say it all: Brown was good on the substance, but these days winning a televised debate on radio doesn’t help you much overall. Remember that radio listeners thought Richard Nixon beat John Kennedy in the 1960 debates that TV viewers gave to Kennedy. A writer for the helpful pro-Labour Left Foot Forward Web site couldn’t resist noting: “I don’t suppose Gordon will be overly delighted with comparisons to Nixon.”

Notice that I have not said much about the campaign’s phenom, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Clegg did just fine in the debate and has used the entirety of the campaign so far much better than either Brown or Cameron. Steve Richards has a good column on this point in the Inpendendent. Clegg turned himself and his party into a major force in British politics, a remarkable achievement. But he couldn’t sustain his dominance. In the first debate, he rose from an unknown to a contender. Now, he is in the center ring and being judged more like the other two candidates.

There are a couple of possibilities for the next few days. One is that there will be a slow flow of voters toward Cameron from both Labour and the Lib Dems. Some polls have shown the Conservatives with leads in the 7 to 10 point range. But the very latest polls released Sunday night for Britain’s Monday morning newspapers paint another picture: Cameron and the Conservatives still aren’t breaking through to dominance. According to the UK Polling Report, the latest YouGov poll for the Sun gives the Conservatives 34 percent to 29 percent for the Lib Dems and 28 percent for Labour. A new ICM poll in the Guardian has the Conservatives at 33 percent and Labour and the Lib Dems at 28 percent each. That’s still quite close.

Such numbers would put the Conservatives well short of a majority of seats, and even open the possibility that they might still get fewer seats than Labour. In the best explanation I’ve seen for why the apportionment of parliamentary seats favors Labour over the Conservatives, British pollster Peter Kellner contrasted “higher turnouts and a growing population in Tory seats, compared with a contracting population and low turnout in many Labour seats.” As Kellner noted in The Times: “This meant the Conservatives needed to garner substantially more votes than Labour to elect each of their MPs. Overall, the Tories won 64,000 more votes than Labour in England in 2005, but 92 fewer seats.”

Cameron, at this moment, is the favorite to win the most votes and the most seats. But the first is far clearer than the second, and he needs more Big Mo to get anywhere close to a majority of the seats. The underlying Conservative advantage was brought home by one finding in the ComRes poll for the Independent on Sunday. Voters were asked for their reaction to a variety of possible governments the election might produce, including a Conservative-led coalition with the Lib Dems, a Labour coalition with the Lib Dems, or clear majorities for either the Conservatives or Labour. What was striking to me is that 31 percent now say they would prefer to see the Conservatives form a government with an overall majority, compared with only 19 percent who would prefer a Labour-majority government. That’s a big difference.

Still, if the YouGov and ICM polls are right, there is still a lot to play for. The Conservatives have a long way to go before they win a majority of seats, and you can’t quite rule out something unexpected. Cameron can’t cruise, and maybe Clegg or Brown have one more act in them.

By E.J. Dionne  | May 3, 2010; 12:09 AM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Funny I predicted Cameron would be the next PM years ago and my predictions on youtube daily motion and many of teh Western World newspapers have always been 100%. I just hope he, as promises


British Writer-Critic Broadcaster.

Posted by: fantazamaraz | May 3, 2010 6:25 AM | Report abuse

Funny I predicted Cameron would be the next PM years ago and my predictions on youtube daily motion and many of teh Western World newspapers have always been 100%. I just hope he, as promises


British Writer-Critic Broadcaster.

Posted by: fantazamaraz | May 3, 2010 6:26 AM | Report abuse

Cameron is a "lightweight", with an invisible front bench. Only a government of the Talents, which a Coalition would bring, can enforce the harsh measures necessary for the everpresent UK Financial Emergency.

Posted by: mjrmike39157 | May 3, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Cameron is an Ad-man, with no political experience, therefore a Coalition is necessary. This would give a government of the Talents; necessary in the present Financial emergency.

Posted by: mjrmike39157 | May 3, 2010 8:44 AM | Report abuse

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