Steve Richards: Party leaders still fear the Holiday Test

Blair took his family to Australia in the winter of 1996. Revealingly, no one raised a murmur

I wonder if any of the party leaders has booked a long holiday in the sun over Christmas and the New Year. In my view they would deserve one, but I am almost certainly in a tiny minority of about three voters on this issue. In the current climate most would probably fume with outraged indignation if they say saw Gordon Brown or David Cameron relaxing in the sun during the depths of a bleak midwinter.

This was not the calculation made by Tony Blair in the build-up to the winter break in 1996, the equivalent period with months to go before a general election. Blair decided to take his family to Australia for two-and-a-half weeks in order to get one last blast of sunshine before the energy draining pre-election period begun.

Revealingly no one raised a murmur of criticism, not even the Daily Mail. There was not a single word written anywhere about Blair jetting off while the rest of the country froze. The Independent's political columnist at the time, Don Macintyre, wrote a typically insightful column on the theme, pointing out that if Neil Kinnock had done the same he would have been slaughtered. Macintyre argued that Blair's long holiday in the sun was testament to his unbreakable hold on public opinion.

The Holiday Test shows how far away we are from the early winter of 1996 and why the next election is much harder to predict than the one that followed in 1997 and indeed the subsequent elections in 2001 and 2005. In relation to Brown the test is wholly hypothetical. Heading for the sun would not even cross his mind.

But if he were to do so he would be torn apart, the equivalent of Jim Callaghan being photographed in the sunshine at a summit in Guadeloupe during the Winter of Discontent in early 1979. Callaghan enjoyed much higher personal poll ratings than Brown does now.

The case of Cameron is more revealing. Unlike Blair he would be taking a big risk if he headed for somewhere hot this winter, and the reasons highlight better than any opinion poll why he has not "sealed the deal", to apply the accurate cliché.

The economic situation now is frightening, whereas in 1996 the economy was relatively stable, even if public services were dire. The scale of the current crisis should benefit a leader of the opposition at an election and probably will. But such a situation brings with it too many unpredictable elements. Will a fear of what is to follow propel the Conservatives into power, or prevent them from acquiring a majority because of alarm that their medicine will be too severe?

More widely, the perception of all politicians across the spectrum is dire now, and unfairly so. In 1996, John Major was viewed with disdain, and in the media with contempt, but the anti-politics mood did not extend beyond him and his dysfunctional government. Now the sentiment applies across the board, which is why Nick Clegg was astute to argue this week that the next few months should have been focused on sweeping political reform. Clegg's sincerely held anti-Westminster instincts could become a factor in an election campaign, to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats. In the meantime Clegg could go where he likes on holiday and no one would notice. That is a problem for him and not a benefit.

For Cameron the issue is more complex because of his personal wealth and that of some of his colleagues and advisers. Brown came to life once during the Queen's Speech debate on Wednesday when he made a rare fresh joke, suggesting Cameron's plans to scrap inheritance tax was the only example where the advocates of the tax cut would personally know all the beneficiaries. On the expenses' crisis I am struck by the number of Conservatives, let alone Labour MPs, who say privately that it is all right for Cameron and George Osborne as they are rich enough to live without an MP's salary of any kind.

I suspect that Cameron's proposals for inheritance tax will become a problem for him and that MPs' expenses will be much more damaging for Brown, which is why the Tory leader displayed his usual agility in exposing the clumsy omission of a clean-up in the Queen's Speech. But there is no certainty about either issue. Current circumstances are far more stirring than they were towards the end of 1996, when the only fast moving story was the collapse of the Conservative party.

There is another reason why an extensive holiday of any sort is not on for senior politicians. It is being said widely, not least by senior figures in Downing Street, that the Pre-Budget report next month is the pivotal pre-election event. This is self-evident. In the Queen's Speech the Government announced a number of guarantees without explaining how it would pay for them. It must do so in the Pre-Budget report while outlining at the same time how it will halve the deficit.

This will not be easy and the tortuous discussions currently taking place between Number Ten and the Treasury suggest it might prove to be impossible. The Pre-Budget report will be challenging for the Conservatives too as they explain how they would cut faster and more deeply.

But the key pre-election phase will begin immediately in the new year and not with the Pre-Budget report. From January 1st everything will feel different. Newspapers looking for stories at a quiet time of year will lead on the tough times ahead, VAT going back up again, and other taxes to rise too. The moment the year turns the election will seem much nearer, as it did in 1992 when the Conservatives began an intense and successful bombardment of Labour. This is when Cameron will seal the deal or Labour will close the gap. There will be no time for a long break in the sun.

Apart from Brown's brief honeymoon in the summer of 2007, Cameron and his party have been ahead in the polls since his election as leader, a pattern that points almost conclusively to one outcome at the election. But Cameron does not pass the Holiday Test. No leader could in the current circumstances. Scepticism, cynicism and fear are the prevailing moods, dangerous ones for any leader seeking to win outright next time.