John Curtice: Three weeks of hot air, and what has changed? Not a jot

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The Independent Online

The great annual rolling political show is over for another year. Tony Blair indicated he wanted four more years. Michael Howard asked us to trust him. Charles Kennedy finally said what his party stands for. And all three carefully weighed their every word in what was, supposedly, the last vital conference season before the next general election.

Yet all the hot air has, it seems, made not a bit of difference. Just before the Liberal Democrats gathered in Bournemouth, the polls on average put Labour two points ahead of the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats on 23 per cent. Our NOP poll, conducted as the conference season drew to a close, suggests that Labour is still two points ahead, while the Liberal Democrats are still running at above 20 per cent.

Among those voters who say they are certain to vote in a general election, Labour's lead by 36 to 34 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats score 21 per cent. Among all those who have a party preference, the figures are the same: Labour are two points ahead, by 35 to 33 per cent;the Liberal Democrats, 22 per cent.

Before the conference season, Labour were favourites to win the next election, but appeared to face the prospect of a much tougher battle than in 1997 or 2001. The survey suggests this remains the outlook.

Nevertheless, these figures may still come as something of a relief for the Tories. Two polls conducted straight after their disastrous fourth place in Hartlepool put the party below 30 per cent. It seemed as though another chapter in the slow death of the Conservative Party was about to be written. The party may now at least have clawed back the one-third or so of the vote on which it has been firmly stuck for most of the past three years. But it must be concerned that 4 per cent currently say they would vote UKIP - a figure that could transform the Tories' prospects.

In any event, Mr Howard's attempt to persuade us that he can be trusted to keep his promises cannot take much credit for the apparent steadying of the Tory ship. Just 19 per cent believe he will be different from Mr Blair or John Major; nearly three-quarters do not. Even among Conservative supporters, just under half say they believe their own party leader.

But if Mr Howard's hopes of becoming Britain's next Prime Minister still look remote, Mr Blair's supposed protégé as his successor, Alan Milburn, has yet to make much impact on voters. Just 12 per cent say they would like Mr Milburn to take over when Mr Blair goes. No less than 54 per cent say they would like Gordon Brown to succeed Mr Blair. Labour supporters back Mr Brown even more decisively, by 72 to 8 per cent. Mr Brown has a clear lead among all classes, all age groups and both genders. It looks as though the Tory slogan, "Vote Blair. Get Brown", is more of a promise than a threat.

Not that this means Mr Milburn cannot be the next Labour leader. Little known candidates won the Tory leadership in 1997 and 2001. But that can hardly be considered a happy precedent.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University

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