The Tories look set to lose the next election. But the electorate is angry - and fickle

What percentage of voters is enthusiastic at the prospect of a third Blair term as opposed to unable to see an alternative?
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If the old rules still applied, the Tories would have no chance of winning the next election. Though by-election victories do not guarantee general election successes, a double fall to third place and a failure to even equal the last election's poor performance does seem disastrous. The Tories have a serious problem.

If the old rules still applied, the Tories would have no chance of winning the next election. Though by-election victories do not guarantee general election successes, a double fall to third place and a failure to even equal the last election's poor performance does seem disastrous. The Tories have a serious problem.

It is too early for them to despair. Even if time is desperately short, there might be a way of solving the problem. Moreover, there is evidence even in the by-election statistics that the old rules are being rewritten.

The Tories' difficulty stems from a battle which they lost in the mid-90s; the battle for the historical record, in which many Tories turned traitor and collaborated with the enemy. With the possible exception of Harold Wilson, John Major was the most vilified prime minister since Lord North. But North lost America, while Wilson occupied Downing Street for almost eight years without a single achievement of note and with much to his discredit. Major could cite the first Gulf War, the Maastricht treaty, which Margaret Thatcher would have signed had she succeeded in negotiating it, the Ulster peace process and the successful battle against inflation. Yet Tory ultras helped Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell to portray the Major government as corrupt, incompetent and weak, a verdict which the party has still failed to reverse.

There is an explanation for this. The Tories have not yet offered an alternative and persuasive account of who they are and what they believe. As long as this is the case, memories of past distaste will be uppermost in many voter's minds. If offered paper and pencil to write down what they think of the Tories and unable to come up with much of an answer, the average voter will recall "sleaze".

This is not because the Tories have spent the past seven years luxuriating in idleness. A lot of policy work has taken place; some of it, to be fair, under Iain Duncan Smith. But no one has succeeded in turning that valuable effort into an over-arching narrative. The Tories have lots of policy clothes-pegs, but no clothes-line. This helps Tony Blair to make his favourite charge of opportunism. It sometimes seems as if the Tories do pick up a different theme every week - health, say, or education - run with it briefly, then move on to something else. This makes it hard to capture the public's imagination or appeal to its discontents. Yet there are openings. There is a widespread feeling that the Blair government is weak where it ought to be strong, especially on crime and asylum, and interfering where it has no business to do so: smacking children, smoking, et al. There is also a widespread belief that Tony Blair is insincere and that Gordon Brown wastes money.

So this could be a good moment to reinvigorate the traditional Tory themes of freedom, choice and strong but limited government, thus creating a framework which will make specific policy proposals appear more credible. This is particularly true over crime, where the Tories' failure to project themselves is extraordinary.

I suspect that the public has never been so angry about crime and that the middle classes have never felt so little confidence in the police. I also suspect that David Blunkett is aware of this, which is why he tries to sound as tough as possible and is never reluctant to pick a fight with senior policemen. When Oliver Letwin was shadow Home Secretary, the Tories thought that they had a strategy to combat this. The plan was to avoid an early rhetorical confrontation. Indeed, Mr Letwin was often happy to agree with Mr Blunkett. But then, after a decent interval, the trap would be sprung. More in sorrow than in anger, the Tories would announce that they had come to a reluctant conclusion. David Blunkett was all talk and no action.

It now seems as if there was no trap. The new shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, has certainly made no attempt to spring it. It is not clear what Mr Davis has been doing. Perhaps someone should tell him that the Septennial Act was repealed many years ago and he should not be planning for an election in 2008. Few opposition spokesmen have had a better opportunity than the one offered to Mr Davis. Few if any have seemed so reluctant to exploit it.

There are reports that Michael Howard is planning a pre-manifesto exercise for the party conference season and that he does intend to energise the Tories' policy presentation. He will need to do something. As Walter Raleigh once wrote in a note to Elizabeth I: "Tarry not, Madam, for the wings of time are tipped with the feathers of death.'' If the Tories do not raise their wing beat dramatically between September and December, another electoral death will be inevitable.

Despite the by-elections, that is not yet the case, for a number of reasons. In the first place, we are no longer dealing with a unified electoral battle. Last week's two constituencies were only representative of one of the three contests which are now taking place; that in the inner cities, between Labour and the Liberals. But there is also the Labour-Tory contest in the suburbs of the smaller towns of the Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire, plus the Tory-Liberal struggle in the South and South-west. In those two, the Tories may be in better shape than Thursday's results would suggest.

We must also acknowledge the real winner on Thursday: abstention and disillusionment. All three parties made a lot of effort, especially in Leicester, which was one of the most publicised by-elections of all time. Some windows even sprouted notices: "No more political leaflets, please.'' Yet barely over 40 per cent could be bothered to vote.

At that level of abstention, there are new rules, and it is dangerous to make predictions more appropriate to the days when around three-quarters of the electorate used to go to the polling booth. Can we assume a continuing drop in turn-out, which has already fallen from 77 per cent in 1992 to 59 per cent last time? On last week's evidence, that possibility cannot be dismissed. But can we be sure that all the ex-voters have left the political market place for ever? Might they not be galvanised to return? If so, it would be unlikely that they would support Tony Blair.

Up in the hills of politics, there is a lot of water whose destination is unclear. If some attractive water-course appeared, Tory or Liberal, it might rush down hill. It might also turn into a grumbling bog. Some of it will find its way to minor parties; on present trends, the BNP, Respect and UKIP could account for one-eighth of the vote at the next election.

On present trends, Mr Blair ought to win again. But what percentage of the electorate is now enthusiastic at the prospect of a third Blair term, as opposed to acquiescent or unable to see an alternative? I would be surprised if it were higher than 15 per cent. There is a lot of volatility. An electorate which is so fickle, aggrieved and sceptical gives all parties grounds for hope, and alarm.