David Cameron started his speech at the last Tory Party conference before the general election yesterday by admitting that his party had "a real fight" on its hands if it was to form the next government. With the Conservative lead in the polls down to a couple of percentage points, and with an electoral system skewed to Labour's advantage, Mr Cameron knows the man he sees as the architect of "broken Britain" could be back in No 10 for another five years.
Elections, it is said, are for governments to lose, not for oppositions to win. Mr Cameron's problem is that Labour under Gordon Brown appeared resigned to losing for some time – only quite unexpectedly to recover self-confidence, almost miraculously, in recent months. Having seen off one Blairite plot after another, the Labour leader is now unquestionably in sole charge of his army. Mr Cameron's party, meanwhile, has been unsettled by muddled policy announcements and talk of rifts between the leader and the shadow chancellor George Osborne.
Mr Cameron's call for an inquiry into Mr Brown's alleged bullying was another wrong move. The public is more bemused than angered by all the feverish reports of pushing and shouting in Downing Street, and Mr Cameron's failure to capture the mood in the country over the allegations seems symptomatic of a wider failure to hit the right note. This helps to explain why Obama-like appeals for change have failed to resonate.
Change to what, exactly? Too many voters still aren't sure. By offering contradictory-sounding pledges, often almost simultaneously – pledging austerity at the same time as ring-fencing spending on public services – Mr Cameron has left people wondering precisely what changes he has in mind and laid himself open to Labour charges of "wobbling".
Alongside this sometimes blurred and imprecise quality, Mr Cameron's message can sound bleak and negative. Talk of a "broken" society and a ruined economy is difficult to sell over a longer period. As the original Cassandra found out, people shy away from constant predictions of imminent disaster. Mr Cameron defiantly repeated the same message yesterday, insisting that "the country was in a compete mess" and that people had a patriotic duty to throw Labour out. It could be argued that an abrupt change in tone at this stage would only unnerve the Tory rank and file and prompt fresh charges of wobbling, but the danger remains that his message does not entirely match the public mood – in part because most people have been shielded from the full impact of the economic downturn by massive borrowing. There is a disconnect between what most people are experiencing and what Mr Cameron insists is the country's true situation.
So, a close fight it is. For most people, who are not members of any party, a keenly fought campaign can only be a good thing. Landslide victories tend to follow lifeless campaigns in which the party that knows it is about to taste office (again) sinks into complacency and arrogance. If both main parties know they are in with a chance, the result may be bruising and sometimes ugly but the plus side is that party leaders will have to be more precise about their policies than they might choose to be, and will not be able to coast along on bland slogans about "change" or "investment versus cuts".
There hasn't been an election campaign in which the outcome was in doubt right up to the finishing line since John Major beat Neil Kinnock in 1992. Our democracy will be all the healthier off for a similarly open contest in 2010.