A new year - and the big political accident that is waiting to happen

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The Independent Online

Now that Michael Howard has sensibly refused to try to make a domestic political issue out of the disaster in the Indian Ocean, it would seem that the generosity of the British people and the efforts of British agencies are not going to be coloured by party politics. His decision not to call for Tony Blair's early return from holiday is almost as much a victory for political maturity as Blair's decision not to come home in an attempt to identify himself with a popular mood.

In any case, it will be another week before politics as usual is resumed in the Palace of Westminster. When it is, however, the curtain rises on what promises to be a remarkable year. This is, unless something really untoward happens, the year of a general election. It will not be like the last one, which was a half-hearted affair, with only 59 per cent of us noticing enough to turn out for it. Yet the outcome this year seems almost as little in doubt. The reinvention of the Conservative Party was the most significant event that did not happen last year, and there must now be almost no prospect of it happening before May. Yet the pall of disillusion with Tony Blair that hangs over the Government has become a permanent feature of the political climate.

Could this, therefore, be Charles Kennedy's year? I think the Liberal Democrats will do better at the general election than many people have realised. We are now five months from the likely date. At this stage before the last election, the Lib Dems were running at an average of 14 per cent in the opinion polls. They went on to secure 18.8 per cent of the vote, an uplift of nearly five percentage points. Last month, the opinion polls put the Lib Dems on an average of 21 per cent.

If they gain a similar "campaign bonus" from their greater exposure during the election period, they could win 26 per cent of the vote.

It is also not widely understood that, despite all the reforms undertaken by the polling companies after the flaws exposed by the 1992 election, opinion polls continued to overestimate the Labour vote. Six months before the 1997 election, Labour's average opinion poll rating was 50 per cent. Blair won such a huge Commons majority that little attention was paid to the fact that Labour's share of the vote at 44.4 per cent was more than five points down. Labour's drop was even greater in 2001, when its share of the vote was seven points lower than the opinion polls had suggested six months earlier.

So if we assume that the Lib Dems gain five points from where they are now at the expense of the Labour Party, as they did last time, it would turn the 122-seat majority for Blair implied by current opinion polls into a majority of just 24. That is rather perilously close to what is known as a working majority - a term defined with scientific accuracy by John Major, who had a majority of 21 and saw it dwindle to zero over the five years of the 1992-97 parliamentary term.

It would not be a breakthrough for the Lib Dems in terms of the number of their MPs, although clever targeting may yield more than the 68 seats implied by uniform national swing. But their real breakthrough is always going to require a hung parliament, and that could be more likely than people think.

If the Lib Dems perform that well, they will thank Charles Kennedy for making the final break with his predecessor Paddy Ashdown. Kennedy had no time for Ashdown's flirtation with a Lib-Lab merger, but it was his decision to oppose Britain's part in the invasion of Iraq (which Ashdown would probably have supported) that has yielded such dividends. Before August 2002, when the din of war grew loud, the Lib Dems were never above 20 per cent in the opinion polls. Since August 2002, they have never been below 20 per cent in the monthly poll averages compiled by David Cowling, political research editor at the BBC. Everyone knows that the Iraq war has detached a large ice floe of middle-class support from Labour and transferred it to the Lib Dems - few seem to appreciate quite how threatening to Blair it could be.

It may be, however, that the Iraq war has changed British political alignments in such a way as to make a hung parliament less likely than such extrapolation from the past suggests. It seems unlikely that Labour's current standing in the polls, an average of 37 per cent, is greatly inflated by Blair's fashionability. In 1997 and 2001, many people may have identified themselves to pollsters as Labour simply because that was the team to be on. Those prepared to declare to a stranger their intention to vote Labour now may be more likely to mean it. So Labour may not underperform its opinion poll rating as badly on 5 May as it has in the past.

The consensus that Labour is likely to remain in power is, therefore, probably right, even if Blair's majority may be sharply reduced. But we can be sure that this time it will not simply be a resumption of business as usual - as it was in 2001 - after the election.

The rise of the Lib Dems has been propelled by the Iraq war, but Kennedy has been adroit in devising domestic policies to keep his new recruits on board, blending populism with his party's liberal heritage. Last week he accused the Prime Minister of using the terrorist threat to promote the politics of fear. This is the sort of device speech-writers call a "claptrap", designed to elicit applause regardless of meaning. Thus Kennedy could restate his opposition to identity cards, a policy that has wide public support, and once again bridge the gap between liberalism and populism. The Lib Dem leader has also been cleverer than Michael Howard in identifying the things that older voters are worried about - pensions, long-term care, council tax and tuition fees. And the complaint used to be that Blair was good at being all things to all people.

The election could, therefore, be very different from the reinvigorating mandate Blair wants. It may look as if he has clung to power through an unfair electoral system, and that little has changed as a result of it. Far from securing an endorsement free from the contamination of Iraq, it could be that disillusion and frustration will grow and that the search for catharsis will erupt in unexpected ways. Even with the official opposition out for the count, a Labour majority cut sharply by a big Liberal Democrat advance this year may turn British politics into an accident waiting to happen.