Steve Richards: Today, we should have been going to the polls – but that was before the revolution

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The Independent Online

How different the political mood might have been. If Gordon Brown had called an early election we would probably have been heading for the polling stations today wondering feverishly whether the new Prime Minister was about to secure an historic victory or be removed from Downing Street after a few months.

Yet what has happened as a result of the non-election is pretty extraordinary in itself. At the beginning of last month, Mr Brown walked on water, way ahead in the polls, winning council by-elections in Middle England and commanding headlines that most prime ministers could only dream of. David Cameron was in trouble and Sir Menzies Campbell was leader of the Liberal Democrats.

In an astonishingly short period of time, the world has turned on its head. Mr Brown stumbles. Mr Cameron dances merrily along. Sir Ming has gone. I cannot recall a period where political fortunes have changed so quickly.

Not surprisingly, in the Brown camp there is still a sense of shock, as if they are mourning a death in the knowledge that they are responsible for the corpse. Before they allowed election fever to get out of hand, they were masters of all they surveyed. Now they wonder how to regain the agenda, recognising with a hint of agonised melancholy that context in politics is supremely important. They know that when a leader is up he can do little wrong. When a leader is down the opposite applies.

In recent days, the Government has been at least as busy as it was in the summer when it received rave reviews. Indeed, in those seemingly far-off months they were largely responding to external crises rather than outlining what they wanted to do in government. The mood was so benevolent they were hailed as visionaries when they had no time to show any vision.

Now there are glimpses of vision, but the mood is more hostile. In recent days, Mr Brown has made two speeches, one on liberty and one on education. Had he made them during his political honeymoon, he would have received wide praise for both, for moving on from Tony Blair's agenda without dumping it entirely.

His speech yesterday on education was a much-needed return to focusing on standards in schools after Mr Blair's obsession about the mechanics of "choice", a word that was not mentioned by Mr Brown. There were also thoughtful sections on the need for cultural change as well as political reform, celebrating the aspirations of schools and pupils rather than attempting to place any divisive cap on them.

But in the current hostile climate, Mr Brown fears he will struggle to be heard as he makes his speeches, let alone praised for them. He plans to make big speeches on public services and more on constitutional reform in the coming weeks. He prepares for them wondering whether they will make ripples after the exhilarating waves of the summer.

In contrast, Mr Cameron finds he can do little wrong at the moment. Had he made his speech this week on immigration during the torrid summer, he would have faced attacks from sympathetic progressives about lurching to the right. At the same time, from the right he would have been criticised for not making enough speeches about immigration. Now he can follow parts of Michael Howard's crudely populist agenda from the last election without being accused too widely of debasing political discourse.

From Mr Brown's perspective, the Conservatives, in alliance at last with their newspapers, probably seem more threatening than they have done for a long time. In contrast, he must wonder at times whether his much-vaunted progressive consensus will ever be as strong as it was in those early heady days of the summer.

In some ways, the biggest change of the lot comes from the Liberal Democrats. I recall Tony Blair telling me the summer before last that "the Lib Dems are f****d and that will have unpredictable consequences for us and the Tories".

Mr Blair was a shrewd observer of the political scene even as he presided over it, especially sharp on his political opponents. In this instance, he was referring to the unsteady start of Sir Menzies Campbell, his own determination to cling to the centre ground and the move in that direction by David Cameron. Until recently, opinion polls suggested that at a national level the Lib Dems were in even deeper trouble since Mr Blair's departure.

This is starting to change. The current leadership contest is nowhere near as silly as the last one. By the equivalent stage of their last contest, a leader had been forced out because of his drink problems, one candidate had withdrawn because of revelations from a gay prostitute and another admitted he'd not told the truth about having gay relationships.

This contest and its context are wholly different. Ming Campbell deserves credit for pulling out earlier than anyone had expected. When a party is in trouble, most leaders vainly conclude that they are even more indispensable. Sir Ming did not let vanity get in the way. His acting deputy, Vince Cable, has been surprisingly good at Prime Minister's Questions and made waves over the visit to Britain of the Saudi royal family.

Above all, the two candidates for the leadership are credible. Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne could walk into cabinet jobs tomorrow and perform at least as effectively as some of those sitting around the top table at the moment. They are joined by several other well-qualified MPs. Almost without anyone noticing, over the years a significant proportion of the Liberal Democrats' parliamentary party has moved from silliness to a degree of gravitas.

Yet for all the changes, I don't sense the non-election is a watershed moment in British politics. Look back at the newspaper cuttings and Mr Brown suffered wildly oscillating fortunes at the Treasury. He will rise again, although in order to do so he must move on from his hyper-cautious pre-election strategy now there is to be no election.

Mr Cameron has shown himself to be calm under fire, a supreme asset, but his problems of the summer have not gone away. In policy terms, he has used an ace card in promising to scrap inheritance tax, but the scope for more aces is limited, given his support for the Government's level of public spending. The Liberal Democrats will continue to struggle for attention once the new leader is in place.

Everything has changed and yet not as much as it seems and nowhere near as much as if an election had been called today. I suspect that in such strange and febrile circumstances Labour would have lost its overall majority. Everything really would have changed then.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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