Not only the size of the gap is new; so, too, is the length of time the Government has been behind. Collapses of support for governments in the middle of a parliament are routine; governments often survive them and come back to win the general election. But the Major government's mid- term trough started almost as soon as it waselected, and shows no sign of ending. Indeed, since the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader last summer, the Government's position has deteriorated further.
The Conservatives' present difficulties are associated with the fragmentation of the party into warring factions as the Thatcherite project began to unravel, after Margaret Thatcher was forced out in 1990. The divisions have been deepest over Britain's place within the European Union. Withdrawing the whip fromnine rebel MPs at the end of last year has few precedents in the modern history of the Conservative Party. It has raised serious questions as to whether the party can still present itself as an effective governing force. Yet, despite this gloomy picture, any one of three dramatically different electoral outcomes is possible for the party.
The Canadian scenario
The general election does not have to be held before spring 1997, provided Mr Major can preserve his parliamentary majority. Conservative Central Office might prefer a general election in June or October 1996, after a tax-cutting budget in November 1995. But if the polls do not improve, there will be little incentive for the Government to go early. It may be obliged to hang on to the last possible minute, asMr Major has been hinting.
Such a decision would be desperate and might bring electoral disaster for the Conservatives, since the party would be at the mercy of events over the winter of 1996-97. It would have no time to recover from any setbacks such as a renewed party split over Europe. A Canadian scenario might unfold.
In the 1993 election in Canada, the ruling Progressive Conservatives, seeking a third term in office, suffered a dramatic defeat. They were reduced totwo seats, having won 170 at the previous general election. The winners were the Liberal Party, which doubled its representation from 82 to 177, and two anti-federalist parties, the Bloc Qubecois, which won 54 seats, and the Reform Party, which won 52.
There has never been an earthquake on this scale in the UK, although there have in recent years been tremors, such as the sudden surge of support for the Greens in the 1990 European Parliament elections. But electoral earthquakes have occurred in some other countries in recent years, including Japan and Italy. Parties that had dominated their political systems for more than40 years and seemed invulnerable to political change were blown away.
The British first-past-the-post system is similar to the Canadian one, and tends to exaggerate any small movement of opinion in terms of seats. In Britain in the 20th century there have been three elections -1906, 1931 and 1945 - in which the governing party suffered a loss in parliamentary representation of more than 200 seats.
of vote lost
1906 (Con) -7.5% 245
1931 (Lab) -6.5% 236
1945 (Con) -13.9% 219
Feb 1974 (Con) -8.5% 33
1983 (Lab) -9.3% 60
No government since 1945 has suffered thedramatic drop in parliamentary representation experienced in 1906, 1931 and 1945. Until theSeventies, the changes in seats and share of the vote tended to be small for the two main parties. Since 1970, electoral behaviour has become more volatile as loyalty to parties has declined. The Conservative vote plunged in 1974 and the Labour vote in 1983. In the four elections since 1979, however, the Conservative share of the vote has been remarkably steady at 42 per cent, sufficient to provide a majority and at times a very large majority in Parliament.
The polls arenow indicating, though, that Conservative support is so low and the gap with Labour so large that an electoral meltdown on Canadian lines is a serious possibility. What was once thought impossible - a complete break with previous electoral patterns - is conceivable in the current circumstances of a highly volatile electorate and a deeply unpopular government.
In the past, electoral volatility has been confined to by-elections. At general elections voters have returned to the governing party. They might not next time. Voters seem to have lost faith in what was the single most important factor in Conservative success in the Thatcher years: belief in Conservative economic competence.
Several factors have combined to produce this: the long and deep recession that terminated the Thatcher/Lawson boom of the lateEighties, the exit from the European exchange-rate mechanism, the unpopularity of some of the later privatisation measures, and the increases in taxation in 1993-95. There is further disapproval of many aspects of the education and health reforms, worries about rising crime, and perception of the Conservatives as deeply divided over policy towards the European Union. Disaffection has grown, too, as a result of the personal conduct of ministers, symbolised by the cash-for-questions row, the extraordinary number of resignations since 1992, almost all related to personal misconduct of various kinds rather than to policy, and the use of patronage powers in the Conservative interest.
This pervasive loss of trust in the Conservatives has been accompanied by the steady emergence of a new confidence in Labour.The most important negative reason for voting Conservative - fear of Labour - has weakened. New Labour isfinding increasing endorsement throughout civil society. The Conservatives may well be on the brink of a historic rejection, comparable to their earlier defeats in 1906 and 1945.
The German scenario
Mr Major will be hoping that his fortunes will be more like those of Germany's Helmut Kohl than Canada's Kim Campbell. Mr Kohl appeared to be facing defeat in the German elections in October 1994. The impact ofrecession and the unification of Germany made him and his party, the Christian Democrats, deeply unpopular. Like the British Conservatives they, too, had been in office for a long time and the desire for change was strong.
While the gap in the opinion polls between the CDU and the social democratic SPD never approached British levels, it did suggest that the CDU would lose its majority. The outcome, however, was different. Kohl recovered sufficiently during the campaign to win narrowly and preserve his Chancellorship for a little longer.
The Conservatives are praying for such aturn of the wheel in Britain. They did something similar in 1992, though their position is considerably weaker today. Nevertheless, a plausible scenario can be constructed as follows. The present Conservative unpopularity reflects temporary factors: the effect of the recession, party divisions over Europe, allegations of sleaze. All these will fade as the election approaches. The key issue in determining the general election will be, as always, the economy. The Conservatives will rebuild their reputation for economic competence during 1995-96; and a popular tax-cutting budget in November 1995 (and, if necessary, another in November 1996) will remind voters of Conservative successes in theEighties.
By the time of the general election, the Government will be seen to have delivered a steady recovery and rising living standards, and support will return to them.
At the same time Labour will be remorselessly attacked, as in 1992, on the tax issue. Since there is almost no other economic issue on which there is a clear dividing line between the parties, the Conservatives will argue that Labour will be forced to raise taxes to pay for new spending programmes, and will focus attention on which party can be trusted to manage the economy most effectively. That tactic worked remarkably well in 1992 against a background of recession. Against a background of recovery and rising confidence, the Conservatives hope to work the same trick.
All this couldbe destroyed by a renewed outbreak of internal warfare over Europe. But here Mr Major's underrated skills as a party manager may rescue him. Despite presiding over the deepest internal Conservative Party split this century, Mr Major has heldhis party together, and he has a reasonable chance of getting itto rally behind his limited European agenda, persuading the rebels to take the party whip again as the election approaches and postponing highly divisive issues, such as decisions on the single currency, until after the election.
This strategy depends for its success on the agenda for the 1996 EU intergovernmental conference being limited to non-contentious matters.There aresigns that other states in theEU would also be happy with this. No one wants to go through another Maastricht ratification just now. Then there is Ireland. IfMr Major can claim credit as one of the architects of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland,this will help to rebuild his reputation for statesmanship andcompetence.
The American scenario
The 1992 US presidential elections were hailed as a watershed, marking the end of the Reagan era and the ascendancy of the New Democrats with a new policy agenda. Sweeping Republican gains only two years later, which saw the Democrats lose control over both the Senate and the House of Representatives, suggestedthe new agenda was shallow and that the long-term political initiative still lay with radical, populist conservatism.
Applied to Britain, such a scenario would haveMr Blair's New Labour Party winning the general election and then proving ineffective in government. In opposition, the Conservatives would regroup under a new leader, purging the party of its pro-European wing and developing a populist line on Europe, crime, race, welfare and tax. The Thatcherite project would be renewed in a more radical form. Reborn Conservatism would then be poised to take advantage of the inevitable plunge in popularity of New Labour as soon as it encountered economic difficulties, and was in its turn split by the European issue.
Labour in government would quickly discredit itself and the Conservatives would sweep back into power.Conviction Conservatism would once more be resurgent and the party would reconfirm its identity as a Thatcherite party, reviving the symbols and ideas of that period. The Major/Blair years would be revealed not as a new era in British politics but as a short intermission in the long-term trend towards the British brand of radical, populist conservatism.
The US scenario might also reflectan increasing volatility of electorates and disenchantment with politics. Attachment to parties and established lites is declining, and being replaced by a new populism and a craving for novelty and instant solutions, which make any long-term political programmes of transformation and reconstruction, whether of left or right, increasingly hard to achieve. Politicians find themselves on a public opinion roller-coaster, which propelsthem up and down with dizzying rapidity. The huge recent swings in support in Britain have shallow roots and do not suggesta new durable political regime is about to be born.Governments control less and less while electorates expect more and more. Incumbency, as a result, is everywhere becoming harder to maintain.
The writer is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield.