Michael Brown: The future's orange (despite all that ridicule)

Cameron is acting as an unwitting press officer and recruiting sergeant for the Lib Dems
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The Independent Online

"Vote Blue, go Green" is the Tory slogan for next week's local elections. But the latest ICM poll suggests it may be actually more of a case that "the future's bright, the future's orange". The poll finding, that shows Labour at its worst rating for 19 years (32 per cent) is devastating in itself, but this ought to be commensurate with a significant rise in Tory support. More devastating for the Tories is that they are only on 34 per cent - less than two points higher than their general election showing last year.

Labour is clearly finally suffering the consequences of the loans-for-peerages row, but it may be the redundancies and closures in the health service that have also accounted for this dramatic slump in support.

The parallel with John Major's government after Black Wednesday is probably overdoing it but, when a government loses the voters' confidence on issues on which it was once seen to have the strongest claims to office, it is hard to see how Labour can recover - at least under Tony Blair. The economy was the Tories' passport to power, but Black Wednesday destroyed all credibility thereafter. Could it be Labour's unique selling points on being "purer than pure" and being the party of the health service are now having the same negative effect?

But it is the Liberal Democrats, not the Tories, who appear to be the beneficiaries of disillusionment with the Government and they are now back, on 24 per cent, to their most optimistic ratings since before the 2005 general election. Less than three months ago, the Lib Dems were in the middle of the most scandal-ridden and chaotic leadership election campaign. But the short-term dip, to 15 per cent in January, in the Lib Dems ratings was quickly corrected, even in the middle of the leadership chaos, by the by-election victory for them in Dunfermline and West Fife.

This ability to withstand ridicule and bad publicity means that there is now a new, increased, permanent "core vote" for the Lib Dems that is impervious to temporary difficulties. A spokesman at Lib Dem headquarters estimates that, 10 years ago, their own "core vote" was probably no more than 5 per cent. But in recent years this has probably now increased to about 15 per cent - whatever the vicissitudes and crises of the moment.

Nevertheless, this still does not explain entirely why, after such universally good publicity David Cameron has had regarding his green credentials, there has not been any translation yet in the Tory fortunes. Of course, by definition, if there is an increased Lib Dem "core vote" there must therefore be a smaller pot of potential new voters for the Tories to attract. This means that when the Tories, or even Labour, hit relatively good times in future, there is no prospect of either ever reaching 40 per cent or more of electoral support.

I have no doubt Mr Cameron has no option but to continue with his emphasis on the green agenda. His focus groups will have told him it clearly rates highly with younger voters. And he has certainly outwitted and outsmarted Gordon Brown, whose stiff speeches on the environment last weekend in the United States contrasted appallingly badly with the compelling photo-opportunities created for the Tory leader in Norway. Thanks to Mr Cameron, all parties will be required to put the issue on the same ranking as tax, public services, and the state of the economy. But it may just be that the more salience Mr Cameron gives to the green issue, by moving it to the top of the political agenda he is acting as an unwitting press officer and recruiting sergeant for the Lib Dems.

The most compelling finding in the ICM poll was the response to the question: "Which party would do more to protect the environment?" Lib Dems led the Tories with 29 per cent compared with 22 per cent - Labour trailed with 17 per cent. This lends weight to spokesmen at Lib Dem headquarters claiming to be progressively more relaxed about the Tory leader stealing their agenda. Every time Mr Cameron mentions the subject, they are convinced that, as a consequence, they are provided with more broadcast opportunities for their own green messages.

Lib Dems also believe they have an advantage over the Tories in being able to focus voters on their policies requiring "tough choices". Voters will be sceptical of green policies that try to imply no one will be a loser. Mr Cameron's latest forays into carbon emissions appear to suggest a pain-free option where cars will still be freely driven and unrestricted cheap air travel still defended. Lib Dems have just enough voter market share and are just far enough away from power to be able to make a virtue out of their credibility by promoting painful green policies. Mr Cameron, by comparison, can only do green politics so long as it doesn't hurt voters. That looks incredible.