Next week may be high noon for Tony Blair, Geoff Hoon and the other players in the Hutton inquiry but it is also the week that will end Michael Howard's honeymoon. The Tory leader completes his first three months in good shape with the latest online poll from YouGov giving his party 40 per cent, a clear five-point lead over Labour. This is the best showing since 1992 when the ERM débâcle consigned the Tories to second place for most of the subsequent decade.
Psephologists are divided over the accuracy of such internet polls. Earlier this week, another poll, for Mori, using more traditional random sample methods, still recorded Labour on 37 per cent, giving them a 2 per cent lead over the Tories.
While both polls show that the Tories are firmly back in business, the Conservatives should be recording huge leads at this stage in the political cycle if they are to have any serious prospect of winning the next general election. Perversely, however, the YouGov poll increases the pressure on Mr Howard as much as for Mr Blair. Expectations are now so dangerously high over the Tories' ability to score runs at the Prime Minister's expense that anything less than a defeat for the Government on university tuition fees, and an outcome from the Hutton inquiry directly implicating Mr Blair in Dr Kelly's suicide, will enable Labour spin doctors to claim that the worst is over for the Government.
The poll, while obviously welcome, has come a week too early for the Tories. Next week provides an opportunity for the Prime Minister to draw a line under the events of the past six months. Labour spin doctors will already be using this poll to create more leverage on backbench dissidents to fall into line on the tuition fees Bill. The clever move this weekend by government whips - having suggested previously that the revolt was falling away - to admit that the vote is still in the balance will actually have the effect of putting more pressure on the softer rebels to abstain, rather than vote against the Bill at second reading. So, as a former whip recalling similar methods we employed during crucial votes on Maastricht, my hunch is that the Government will successfully win the vote on Tuesday.
Wednesday, the day of publication of the Hutton report, is also being billed as the day that could break Mr Blair's premiership with Mr Howard destined to strike the killer blow. Again, however, hunch suggests that by this time next week things may well have turned out to be something of a damp squib. Mr Howard will therefore be under as much pressure over the coming days as Mr Blair. Crucially, Lord Hutton's decision to make a statement on his report before events unfold in the Commons means that he, rather than Mr Howard, will probably set the terms of the subsequent exchanges.
So in the weeks ahead, short of total defeat for the Prime Minister on both issues, the pressure will become greater for the opposition. The more seriously the Tories are taken, the greater the scrutiny to which their alternative policies will be subjected. Already Mr Blair has successfully demonstrated that university funding is a problem, and the Tories will have to find a formula long before the next general election that addresses the issue. This lack of alternative policy will be one of the most difficult problems facing Tim Yeo on Tuesday.
Much of the recent poll advance by the Tories can be explained by the fact that after years of infighting, Mr Howard has succeeded in getting the solid core vote to return to the fold. But this takes him only so far, and the question now is the extent to which he will make the leap to appeal beyond Tory voters to the rest of the electorate.
Here there is still a nagging doubt from the more "socially inclusive" Tories such as Michael Portillo. Disagreeing with the Tory policy to reverse David Blunkett's downgrading of cannabis to a Class C drug, Mr Portillo on BBC1's This Week said that this suggested that Mr Howard had decided to follow the path of reinforcing the traditional Tory vote rather than reaching out to the rest of the country. Had Mr Portillo accepted an invitation to join Mr Howard's shadow Cabinet - perhaps as home affairs spokesman - we might already be facing familiar Tory split stories.
On the other hand, Mr Howard can take comfort from YouGov's finding that - again for the first time since 1992 - the Tories are now regarded as the best party of economic competence in the event of economic difficulties. The trouble is that, on present trends, such economic difficulties, which are inevitable if current spending and borrowing continue to add to the burgeoning deficit, will not be felt by voters until after the election.
Figures announced yesterday still suggest that the economy continues to grow and that retail sales held up well, after all, in December - although this could be the prelude to increases in interest rates.
The trust factor continues to haunt Mr Blair, and Mr Howard has clearly managed to reinforce this negative factor. In 2001 56 per cent believed the Government was honest and trustworthy. That is now down to 22 per cent. But next week may yet be the low-water mark against the Prime Minister after which the pressure could ease. The jangling nerves in Downing Street are matched only by the nervousness of Mr Howard.Reuse content