Gordon Brown's Labour Party is on the verge of an historic comeback, according to a recent opinion poll. A survey carried out by YouGov - an affiliate of The Sunday Times - suggested that support for the Conservative Party had fallen, narrowing the Tories' lead over Labour to just two points - the narrowest margin in more than two years. The poll placed support for the Conservatives at 37% of the electorate, against Labour's 35%.
The figures reveal a remarkable switch in voters' allegiance over the past two years. The last time Labour held a lead over the Conservatives in opinion polls was the autumn of 2007, shortly after Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as Prime Minister. Support for Brown and his party then collapsed; in May 2008, the same poll judged the Tories lead over Gordon Brown's party at 26 points, leaving observers to predict a landslide victory for David Cameron's party in the general election.
Labour's recovery has since gained traction. The gap between them and the Tories narrowed to six points in the week ending February 19 before resting at two points in the week just gone. Despite Labour still trailing their rivals in the race to the general election, widely expected to take place in May this year, the Conservative's lead would not be enough to see the country's leadership change hands. If the poll is replicated in actual votes cast, Labour would be left with 317 seats in Parliament, compared with the Tories' 263. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, would be third with 31 seats.
While not sufficient for an overall majority, the results would see Gordon Brown retain his role as PM, a scenario which, up until a few weeks ago, seemed far from likely.
The reasons for this dramatic turnaround aren't immediately apparent. Many will point to the UK's economic recovery; the country officially came out of recession in the final three months of 2009 when GDP grew for the first time since the second quarter of 2008. Yet few will argue that this growth, registered at a meagre 0.1% (since revised upwards to 0.3%), is enough to have convinced voters that the economy is back on the road to recovery. Indeed, so far, Brown and Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, have done little to assuage fears surrounding the country's fiscal deficit which continued to grow in January and is expected to top 13% in 2010.
Neither have the Conservatives, however, who arguably have failed to capitalise on the Labour Party's travails over the past few months. Questions raised of Gordon Brown's leadership appear not to have been translated into a loss of voters' confidence; even recent claims that Brown bullied and intimidated his staff have done little to tarnish his reputation with just 28% of those questioned labelling the PM as a bully.
Meanwhile, many observers believe Cameron's efforts to revitalise the Tories' image in the run-up to the election campaign have backfired. In attempting to attract a younger, more liberal audience, some feel the Tory leader has alienated some of the party's traditional right-wing support, while his Eton and Oxford background continues to distance him from the working class support he is keen to snatch from Labour's grasp. Indeed, among those surveyed by the YouGov poll, 25% of voters think the Tory leader understands the concerns of "people like me" compared with 35% for Gordon Brown.
The latest figures make for an interesting couple of months with the outcome of the election now as unpredictable as it has ever been. With the three main political parties due to engage in live US-style television debates over the coming weeks, it remains to be seen whether Cameron's greater oratory skills and natural charisma will allow him to increase his party's lead over Labour in the polls.
One thing is for sure: the uncertainty surrounding which party is to lead the UK out of recession will do little to settle the anguish among economists and investors over the country's dire fiscal status. With most observers hoping for a fast and decisive resolution to the UK's debt crisis, the possibility of a hung parliament - whereby neither party gains the seats required for an overall majority - will unnerve the stock and currency markets.