Can the blurry party yomp its way to victory?

Is this the Lib-Dem hour? Charles Kennedy is the only national party leader to oppose an imminent war on Iraq. Only Mr Kennedy has marched and spoken with the national majority. Next week the local election campaign begins in earnest. It could be a wartime poll. Only Mr Kennedy will view it with relish. With the Tories stumbling and Labour crippled by its leader’s war dance, a Liberal Democrat breakthrough could be on the cards.

Each year I ponder the significance of the Liberal Democrats. The exercise is like breathing inside a feather pillow. Sight blurs, the mouth dries and the windpipe fills with fluff. I thought that nothing could be as vacuous as a Paddy Ashdown speech, until I heard a Charles Kennedy one. He makes Pollyanna seem like Genghis Khan.

Yet Mr Kennedy opposes the war. He is a man who has wandered into the wrong bar and found himself doing new things, such as espousing specific policies shunned by other party leaders. To him, Iraq’s threat to the world in no way justifies a pre-emptive attack. Foggy though Mr Kennedy may be about the future of United Nations resolutions, he is against a rush to war. He has been handed an electoral sword. Can he use it?

For Liberals to make a historic breakthrough, they cannot just win flash-in-the-pan by-elections. They must rip up the rulebook. They must induce more voters to tick their boxes nationwide than those of both the two main parties. They must produce a public sensation and make everyone revise their stereotypes.

The May 1 local elections are such an opportunity. Mid-term polls are a key test of party health nationally, sad as it may be for true localists. These elections promise to be extraordinary. They could be held with Britain bloodily and controversially at war, a war that is anathema to most on the Left and to many on the Right. Public opinion is moving the Liberal Democrats’ way. They have gained on Labour and the Tories in polls held since the 2001 general election. They are already the party of power or shared power in almost a third of local councils.

The double enemy is now playing into Mr Kennedy’s hands. Constituency Labour parties are going through a nightmare. Wednesday night’s backbench revolt was interpreted by the Westminster press as a “snub to Blair”. It was nothing so personal. The only thing worse for an MP than not getting a government job is not being reselected next time. Local Labour parties are incandescent over this war. Had Hampstead’s Glenda Jackson dared vote with Mr Blair yesterday she might as well have torn up her party card.

Like it or not, May Day is scheduled as a plebiscite on the war. This means that 121 Labour MPs must go round their constituency estates asking Labour voters to do what they refused to do themselves, say yes de facto to war. I cannot see this happening. There will be massive abstentions.

Labour’s only consolation lies with the Tories’ Iain Duncan Smith. His determination to be “more pro-Bush even than Blair” ensures that no anti-war votes will switch to him. He is now as shackled to Mr Blair’s war timetable as Mr Blair is to President Bush’s. They are all peas in the same pod and will be, it seems, until this ghastly business is over.

The Tories’ electoral plight is desperate. While last month’s Times/Populus poll showed Labour’s share almost as low as the Tories’ 34 per cent, most polls still put Labour at least ten percentage points ahead, when the reverse should probably be the case. Business and consumer confidence is plummeting and the public is contemptuous of Labour’s domestic record. The Conservatives ought to be recapturing every English county and half the cities. Birmingham should be Tory again. Labour should be fearing for Bristol and Leeds. (There is at present not a single Conservative councillor in Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle.)

As long as the Tories keep Mr Duncan Smith as their leader, this situation will not radically improve. He may be nice, but this is not a charm contest. He is a walking deathwish for his party. Local elections are more than just field training for party workers. They must mean something or morale will collapse. Ninety-five per cent of elected jobs in Britain are local. Most daily political activity in Britain remains centred on the locality. Conservative campaigners are now praying for Mr Duncan Smith to stay out of sight just now. They have enough problems.

Local councillors are the Territorial Army of politics. They used to be the Tories’ unsung heroes, the infantry on whom successive election victories depended. After defeats in 1945, 1964 and 1974 these soldiers rallied to colours and eventually triumphed. It was Margaret Thatcher and John Major who stripped these people of their powers and ignored them. When the political pendulum should have swung back after 1997, there was no local response. The army had folded its tent and melted away home. Labour had a lasting power base in the public services and unions. The Tories have none. Mr Duncan Smith may cry with Richard II, “Is not the king’s name twenty thousand names?”, but it does him no more good than it did Richard. You have to be a saint to stand as a Tory councillor these days.

The centralism of the Thatcher and Major Governments was a catastrophe for Conservatives. Four leaders in a row opposed delegation and the localist agenda. On hospitals, schools and police, the Tories reject local service variation and constantly demand that Whitehall ministers intervene. Labour’s red-tape mania and its “health and safety fascism” should have been a gift to the Opposition. Yet Mr Duncan Smith will not even campaign to defend those one-time Tory bastions, the county councils. He seems not to realise that John Prescott’s replacement regions will be all Labour.

Psephologists are always sceptical about Liberal revivals. They depict them as flashes in the pan, votes in a dustbin, tactical upsets. Recently the party has been advancing in the polls. In general elections it averaged 8 per cent in the 1960s, 16 per cent in the 1970s and has since plateaued at around 20 per cent. At the 1987 election it seemed to be on the brink of ousting Labour as the chief threat to the Tories in government, coming second in 228 Tory-held seats. That bid failed. Labour recovered.

Now the Liberal Democrats have the opposite opportunity. Most polls now show them advancing to 25 per cent, chiefly at the expense of Labour. In almost all cities, the Liberal Democrats are the opposition to Labour. With Mr Duncan Smith veering back to the Right, it requires one mighty heave for Mr Kennedy to win enough anti-war votes from Labour to overtake the Tories. He just needs to show he can come second at the ballot box.

In ordinary times coming second in total votes cast in local elections might win Mr Kennedy no more than a lap of honour. Normal service would soon resume. But these are not ordinary times. British politics is being upheaved by Mr Blair’s positioning himself so far to the right of his party. In public service reform, privatisation, law and order and the eulogising of the American President, Mr Blair has seemed to model himself on Margaret Thatcher. Small wonder the Tories are gasping for air. Mr Blair has effectively neutralised the political spectrum. His programme is broadly Tory but his supporters, on whom he still lavishes patronage, are Labour. It has been one of the most remarkable pieces of political engineering since Disraeli (with whom Mr Blair shares much). Now the Prime Minister has decided to dare all. He is cutting loose. He is defying his party and British and European opinion and going his own way with America. Having suspended politics, he is testing autocracy to destruction.

With no Tories in sight, this campaign must present an opening for a Liberal Democrat coup. But I sense that, even with a coup, Mr Kennedy has yet to make up his mind where his feet are standing. Paddy Ashdown failed in the 1990s to make Liberal Democracy the left-of-centre alternative to a Tory government. That option is no more. Charles Kennedy’s hope is somehow to become the right-of-centre alternative to a Labour government.

A right-of-centre alternative to Labour? There is only one politician who fits that bill and he is in office already. He is called Tony Blair.