The main opposition Conservative Party and smaller Liberal Democrats sound more confident than ever that they can eat into Labour’s impressive 161-seat majority in Parliament at the election on May 5.
“It is going to be much closer than last time,” predicted Paul Whiteley, a professor of politics at the University of Exeter, referring to Labour’s landslide victory in May 2001, which followed a similar triumph in 1997.
“I think Labour will be returned with a working majority but a much reduced majority,” he said, putting the margin at just 30 to 40 seats.
Though he thought it unlikely, Mr Whiteley would not rule out a hung parliament, where no party wins an outright majority.
Four new polls published yesterday found Labour was losing ground to the main opposition Conservatives, and one of the surveys in the Financial Times even put the Conservatives ahead of Labour for the first time. The poll, conducted over the weekend, puts the Conservatives, under leader Michael Howard, at 39%, followed by Labour at 34% and Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats at 21%.
The opposition parties are campaigning hard, with trust seen as a key issue due to a sense that Blair misled the public over the Iraq war and has backtracked on domestic policy pledges such as a U-turn decision to introduce university tuition fees.
National security also looks set to dominate the debate alongside day-to-day concerns about health, education and the economy.
“I think (the trust factor) is a challenge for us at this election,” admitted Parmjit Dhanda, the Labour MP for Gloucester.
“We have to accept that after eight years in government, although we have done a lot of good things, we have not done everything and we can’t please everybody,” he said.
But the Tories say the erosion in trust means the Blair government must go.
“What we above all have got to do is to persuade people that we are delivering something that is achievable and we will in government deliver what we have promised” said Charles Hendry, Conservative MP for Wealden, southeast England, and deputy chairman of the party.
For their part, the Lib Dems feel the public has equal dislike for Blair and Howard, whose party led Britain for 18 often troubled years until 1997.
“It seems that people are looking for an alternative this time around,” said Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrats’ spokesman on homeland issues.