Gordon Brown is facing a bleak political winter, his government paralysed by weeks of remorseless bad news. But at this moment of Labour weakness, one question hangs in the air at Westminster: why are the Conservatives not doing better?
At first glance the concern being raised, sotto voce, by senior Tories seems at odds with psephological reality. A run of glowing opinion polls culminated in one which gave the party an 11-point lead over Labour – not bad for a party 11 points behind only two months ago.
But it is the headline Tory share of the vote that is furrowing brows within the high command. “We need to get into the mid-40s to be confident of getting an overall majority,” says one party strategist.
Under David Cameron, who became Tory leader in December 2005, the Conservatives have struggled in vain to reach that point.
Even after Gordon Brown’s horrendous autumn – which started with his last-minute decision to jettison plans for a November election – Mr Cameron has managed to get to only 43 per cent, according to one YouGov survey last week for The Daily Telegraph.
More typically, the polls have shown the Tories topping out at 40-41 per cent. Even that less-than-dizzy height was hit only during the recent series of government crises and, before that, in Mr Cameron’s honeymoon period in the dog days of Tony Blair’s administration.
“There has been some improvement since the summer and what we have achieved so far is very encouraging, but there is no room for complacency,” says a Conservative spokesman.
Over the last five years, Britain has become a 40-40 nation. Neither Labour nor the Tories has consistently managed to appeal to more than 40 per cent of the country at any time.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, says this matters less to Labour because the electoral map is “biased in its favour”. Tony Blair won the 2005 election on just 36 per cent.
The Tories, adds Prof Curtice, could win an overall majority with 40 per cent, but that would depend on the state of the other parties. A clear 45 per cent would give Mr Cameron much more room to relax.
The Tory leader knows he has to extend the party’s political and geographical appeal if he is to form a majority government. A hung parliament is seen as a more likely outcome among some senior Conservatives.
Under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership the party touched the high 40s in the polls, thanks partly to the former Tory leader’s ability to embody the aspirations of working class voters.
Even if Mr Cameron were able to make the same connection, he has another problem. Under Mrs Thatcher’s leadership the Tories were still largely a national party, gaining seats in Scotland, the North East and even in cities such as Liverpool. Today the party barely exists in some of those areas. Nor is the party devoting much financial muscle to winning them back. Resources are being diverted to marginal seats in more fertile territory, such as the south, the Midlands, Wales and some more prosperous seats in the North West.
Conservative campaign chiefs believe they can still reach the 45 per cent mark by cleaving to the centre ground and setting out a compelling message to middle Britain.
David Cameron’s strategy of highlighting education, health and environmental issues – ahead of traditional Tory subjects such as Europe or immigration – is at the heart of that approach.
Lord Ashcroft, the influential Tory vice-chairman and major donor, summed up that centre-ground strategy in his book Smell the Coffee, an inquest on the party’s 2005 defeat.
He said: “We must realise that appealing to the conservative or even reactionary instincts of people who, in reality, are never going to support the Conservatives in large numbers prevents us from connecting with our real core vote.”