The polls are volatile, the challenges are immense

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The Independent Online

The leaders of Britain's three main political parties all face particular challenges in 2008, but it is Gordon Brown who goes into the new year with the most ground to make up. The Prime Minister has endured a wretched four months since the infamous autumn "non-election". Mr Brown has been rocked by one crisis after another, from the implosion of Northern Rock, the Labour party funding scandal, the Government's misplacing of public data, to savage criticism of Mr Brown from former generals, the fiasco over the European Union treaty signing and the rancour over the new police pay deal. Unfairly or not, a public image of the Prime Minister as indecisive, accident-prone and even incompetent is beginning to form.

Obviously, Mr Brown has no choice but to come out fighting in January if he is to alter this perception before it becomes ingrained. But his fightback needs to be carefully controlled. The lesson of recent months is that the Prime Minister needs to cut out the crude attempts to spin the news agenda, forget the undignified chase for favourable headlines and get on with the business of government. Now is the time for the Prime Minister to stop talking about his "vision" and start implementing it. Mr Brown said yesterday that 2008 would be a year of "measurable changes in public services". For his sake, we hope this is true. Inevitably, his past decade as a key player in Tony Blair's government will continue to come back to haunt Mr Brown (among them the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the failure to curb carbon emissions, the economic slowdown and public sector pay decisions), but he must accept the flak and plough on.

Unlike the Prime Minister, Nick Clegg will not be troubled by the consequence of former decisions, but 2008 will be a year in which the new Liberal Democrat leader must prove his mettle. The Liberal Democrats are being steadily squeezed by the two larger parties. And, having shed two leaders in as many years, the Liberal Democrats cannot afford to waste any more time. Mr Clegg is right to put wrecking the Government's identity card proposals top of his agenda for 2008. But it is also vital that he takes risks as leader. Playing it safe will only see the Liberal Democrats decline into irrelevance. Vincent Cable's fine stewardship of the party in recent months has shown it is possible for the third party to make waves. Mr Clegg must pick up where Mr Cable left off.

As for the Conservatives, it is important that the leadership keeps to the modernising and liberal agenda that has been crucial in the party's recovery over the past two years. We need to hear more about new environmental initiatives and efforts to protect civil liberties and less reactionary grandstanding on issues such as crime and immigration. The evidence of recent polling suggests that, although the public is getting fed up with Labour, it is not yet inspired by the idea of the Conservatives back in Downing Street. The challenge for David Cameron in 2008 is to show that the Tories are, once again, a credible party of Government with a coherent set of genuinely progressive policies.

The local elections in May will be a test for all the party leaders at the ballot box, but this will not be a national election year. The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, indicated yesterday that a general election is likely to be at least two years away. But 2008 will still be vitally important for all three parties. Politics is more competitive than it has been for 20 years, as demonstrated by the volatility of opinion polls. A weekend survey shows that the gap between Labour and the Conservatives has fallen to 5 percentage points, having been as high as 13 in the Tories' favour only a fortnight ago. In 2008, all is still to play for in British politics.