A week before polling day Labour looks to have the general election won because of the Conservatives' failure to get their own campaign off the ground. The Tories know they must poll at least 40% of the vote to have any chance of continuing in office, but as each policy initiative and rethink of strategy crumbles in their hands, their recorded level of support remains far below that level.
The starting point for our forecast of what might happen on 1 May is our analysis of all local government by-elections contested since the general election was called on 17 March. There have been 12 contests involving more than 20,000 voters where there have been candidates from all three of the major parties both at the by-election and at a previous set of annual local elections.
Our computer projection from these results suggests that Labour support was equivalent to a national share of the vote of 44% with the Conservatives on 31% and the Liberal Democrats on 20%. If repeated at the general election, assuming uniform national swing, Labour would have an overall majority of about 125 seats.
Labour's share of the vote will not be above the mid-40s. The party's maximum support in real elections was the 47% recorded in the remarkable local elections of 1995. A much better marker is probably the 44% Labour got in the June 1994 European elections.
The Conservatives will not poll less than the low 30s. It is possible they could slip below 35% for the first time at a general election since 1859, but their die-hard supporters will probably prevent this.
The Liberal Democrats will get a better share of the national vote than they might have expected at the start of the campaign. Their opinion poll rating has gradually improved. They seem to be attracting right-of-centre voters who have been put off voting Tory and soft left voters who are nervous of a Labour landslide.
Events in the final week could yet upset the party balance, and differential turnout might skew the result in individual constituencies.
So, here is our forecast. And remember - in Peter Snow's immortal words: 'It's just a bit of fun.'
Share of vote % (Seats)
Conservatives: 34.5 (244) Labour: 43.5 (362) Liberal Democrats: 16.0 (26)
Winning party: Labour
THIRD PARTY ENDORSEMENTS
One of the surest indicators that the Conservative Party fell into an electoral hole following the decision to exit the ERM in 1992 was the subsequent local election results. Now, and with no little irony, John Major has called the general election to coincide with this year's county contests. The Conservatives could end up beginning the long climb back to a respectable level of representation in local government even as they slide to an embarrassing Parliamentary defeat.
Such a result would bring their 18-year term in office full circle. Margaret Thatcher became prime minister following the first coincident general and local elections in history in May 1979. The high turnout meant that even an unpopular Labour Party did better at the local level in terms of both seats and votes than it had done during its mid-term slump three years earlier. Now, the reverse is likely as the parties compete for county seats last contested in 1993 and in new unitary authorities whose previous elections were primarily held in the Conservatives' disaster year of 1995.
For most observers the question now is not whether the government will lose, but how bad the defeat will be. Not since 1859 have the Conservatives polled less than 35% at a general election and only once since then, in 1906, has the party had less than 200 seats in the House of Commons. Yet both such outcomes are possible if they perform as badly as the polls predict.
Moreover, recent local election results have shown the Conservatives to be the victims of an effective pincer movement employed by the two opposition parties. Tactical campaigning - whereby a party concentrates resources on its most winnable target seats - has wreaked havoc in former Conservative local government strongholds. This strategy has rarely been consciously agreed by local Labour and Liberal Democrat activists, but has arisen because the they appeal to different parts of the electorate and tend not to fight each other on equal terms.
As a result, the Conservatives now have fewer councillors and control fewer councils than their opponents. In 1979, 48% of all councillors in Great Britain were Conservative and the party had majority control in just 14 local authorities. Council losses have, in turn, robbed the party of many of its activities. Its local voice has become muted, presenting real problems for traditional constituency campaigning.
Only four constituencies are on both Labour and Liberal Democrat target lists. In all other marginals the battle will be against a single, well-resourced opponent. Where Labour is the enemy at least the Tories will understand the terms of the battle. It is for the allegiance of the average voter - neither poor nor well-off and likely to be living, geographically as well as socio-economically, in 'middle England'.
The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, are harder to pin down, not least where their Parliamentary challenge has been based on local government success. How else is it possible to explain the differences between Macclesfield, a Tory stronghold at both local and national level, and neighbouring Hazel Grove, an equally prosperous, middle- class enclave where the Liberal Democrats habitually poll more than 50% of the local vote and are now poised to win the Parliamentary seat too?
After a month of campaigning the Tory Party is stuck. The graph (left) tells a similar tale to the one for Labour last week. In opinion polls and local elections alike nothing has changed for three years. For the Tories, however, this means that they have failed to break through the 30% mark either consistently or convincingly. There is still time for those Conservative supporters who shy away from the opinion pollsters to come to their party's aid on election day, but there is no evidence that there will be enough of them to do more than hold Labour's likely overall majority to 'only' double figures.
So, is there any silver lining for Conservative Party stalwarts? One small consolation might be that even a Labour landslide would have little impact on any early contest for a new Tory leader. None of the prime contenders, with the possible exceptions of Malcolm Rifkind in Edinburgh Pentlands, are likely to lose. Kenneth Clarke, Stephen Dorrell, William Hague, Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo, not to mention John Redwood and Mr Major himself, all enjoy majorities of at least 30%. Michael Howard in Folkestone and Hythe looks more vulnerable on paper, but his nearest challengers are the Liberal Democrats who are not as potent a force in the constituency as they were four years ago, whereas Gillian Shephard in South West Norfolk will probably be protected by a continuing division in the opposition vote.
The only other saving grace for the Tories is that this year's local elections are confined to shire England. In the comparable contests in 1993, they polled a national equivalent of 31% of the vote and won control only of Buckinghamshire, but changes arising from Sir John Banham's review of local government structure will help them this time. Buckinghamshire without Milton Keynes is an even safer bet, and several other counties such as Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Kent, Leicestershire and Shropshire, where urban areas have been removed to form unitary authorities, are also within range.
Unitary councils have been far less happy hunting grounds, but even here there is a real chance that 1997 could mark a change in their fortunes. The break up of Berkshire into six all-purpose authorities should mean that the Conservatives will gain their first of these new generation councils. Wokingham looks a near certain gain, and a narrow general election defeat might also deliver Bracknell Forest and Windsor and Maidenhead.
Outside Berkshire, the Conservatives will be defending just 53 seats in unitary elections. For three years now local Tories have been paying the cost of putting the Local Government Commission to work without having first clearly set out its guiding principles and philosophy.
The Conservatives might gain between 200 and 300 seats and six additional councils at the local elections on 1 May. It would be their best performance for five years, but they would still be the third party of local government.
-- Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher are directors of the Local Government Chronicle Elections Centre at the University of Plymouth.