Predicting the future of British politics in 2005 may seem like a mug's game - given that a mere 18 weeks from tomorrow, the voters are likely to be asked to give their verdict at the ballot box. But since pundits, like weather forecasters, are paid to foretell the future, I'll give it my best shot. First, however, a minor caveat about the election date. While I am 99 per cent certain that the day of the local county council elections, 5 May, will also be the day of the general election there is always Margaret Thatcher's iron law of British politics - "always expect the unexpected" - that no commentator should ever forget.
I suffered a classic case of ignoring this rule in this column a year ago when, looking forward to the Hutton Report I assumed that Geoff Hoon would not be seated at the cabinet table by the end of 2004. Never did I imagine that it would David Blunkett, not Mr Hoon, who would be the Prime Minister's "absent friend". And reflecting on the decision of Alan Milburn to spend more time with his family, I failed to appreciate that he would be needed again by the Blairite family quite so quickly.
We all assumed that the 2001 election would be on the first Thursday in May, but we could not have known that the foot-and-mouth epidemic would ruin all our well-laid plans. Barring another unknown "act of God" beyond the control of politicians, there is every good reason for the Prime Minister to want to capitalise on the local county council elections already set for 5 May. That will mean a dissolution of Parliament during the first week after the Easter parliamentary recess - certainly no later than 7 April.
Trawling back through the record books, however, I have just noticed that another Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, called an election for Thursday 31 March in 1966 which resulted in a huge 100-plus Labour majority. Provocatively, in 2005 this day also falls on a Thursday. If Mr Blair wanted to catch us all with our pants down - and he does like surprises - this could be the joker date in the pack. He could argue that there is no prospect anyway of securing the passage of much of his current legislative programme before a May election and therefore, for the benefit of the country, he wants to put us out of an additional five wasted weeks of "phoney war" electioneering.
The downside is that this early date might deprive the Government of holding a pre-election budget of goodies on the eve of the formal campaign. Budgets are usually held in the second or third week of March. This would not be possible if Parliament had already been dissolved. But if there is a budget on 2 March (notice of this would be given some weeks ahead), be on your guard for an announcement, immediately afterwards, of an election on 31 March. Remember that, in 1992, John Major dissolved Parliament 48 hours after an early March budget. I do not expect this to happen. However, if it does, you read it here first.
But it is the result of the 2005 general election, whenever it is to take place, that readers would like to know in advance. Again another caveat: having had the grim experience of putting my life in the hands of voters on five occasions over an 18-year period in Parliament, I know the pitfalls of presuming to know what voters will do at the ballot box. The bookies' odds are for a third-term Labour win; the smaller the majority, however, the less likely it is that Mr Blair will remain Prime Minister throughout the third term.
If his overall majority falls to 40 - a perfectly acceptable result for the Tories in 1979 - this would be seen inside the Labour Party as a defeat for him. Blairites like Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers would be blamed for a strategy that lost 60 Labour MPs their seats. But no blame would attach to Gordon Brown. Having toured the country he would be exempt from the recriminations at the centre.
The single politician who holds the fates of Mr Blair, Mr Brown - and Michael Howard - in his hands in 2005 is Charles Kennedy. Mr Kennedy has four objectives for 2005: to quit smoking; to become a father; to win more seats; and, ideally, to hold the balance of power in the Commons. I expect him to achieve three of these. (Incidentally, a 31 March election would enable Mr Blair to deprive Mr Kennedy of that best election photocall of all: kissing his newborn baby, due in April, during the campaign.)
Mr Kennedy begins the New Year with his party showing a consistent poll rating in excess of 20 per cent, compared with 13 per cent before the 2001 election. It is generally acknowledged that the Liberal Democrats are usually able to put on a further 5 per cent during the actual campaign proper because of the additional publicity they receive when they are placed on a more equal footing with their main party rivals.
Mr Blair has decided to end the daily morning press conferences that have become an opportunity for uncontrolled media mischief-making. And after the experience of the 2001 Tory press conferences, which caused such nightmares for the leadership over the disappearing act of Oliver Letwin, I would not be surprised if the Tories did not follow Mr Blair's example.
But Mr Kennedy and his team of heavyweights - including Sir Menzies Campbell, Vincent Cable and Mark Oaten - would profit from being the sole party leadership prepared daily to face the cameras. Labour and Tory campaigns will be tightly controlled to make sure no loose cannon journalist - or voter - gets near their senior figures. Generally speaking, Mr Kennedy and his clan benefit from the spontaneity provided by daily press conferences as well as from relaxed walkabouts in town squares free of oppressive security considerations.
Now that many voters, who might otherwise vote Tory, can get many Tory policies from a Labour Government, those who do not want such policies - especially Labour supporters - may be tempted to vote Liberal Democrat. There is no clear blue water between Labour and Tory, but there is clear water (such as on the Iraq war and identity cards) between the Liberal Democrats and both the other main parties.
Of course, disgruntled Labour voters turning to the Liberal Democrats in Labour-held marginal seats that the Tories have a chance of winning, do assist the Tories (without the Tories necessarily adding to their 2001 tallies). So in these seats "vote Lib Dem - get a Tory" could profit Mr Howard, notwithstanding his current flat-lining in the polls. But there are also inner-city seats where the Tories have disappeared and whose former supporters may be tempted to vote Liberal Democrat as the only way of dislodging Labour. And there are still many Tory seats, vulnerable to Liberal Democrats, where the Labour vote, in third place, can express its displeasure at Mr Blair by voting Liberal Democrat, achieving the double-whammy of kicking the Tories out as well.
This will be an election where the polls may remain remarkably consistent for each of the three parties. There are scenarios where the same national result on election day, mirroring the current polls - Labour 37 per cent, Tory 35 per cent, Liberal Democrat 22 per cent - could yield anything from a Labour majority of 100 to a hung parliament. The campaign itself may look like being a dull re-run of 2001, but the result could be exciting. If it is, Mr Kennedy is the politician to watch in 2005.Reuse content