Ed Miliband is still most likely to be our next prime minister

The savings and pensions Budget went down well - but was it the game-changer Osborne needed?

Column LAST UPDATED AT 11:04 ON Tue 25 Mar 2014

SHOULD Ed Miliband be panicking over the two post-Budget opinion polls that put the Tories within a point of Labour? Or can he afford to hold his nerve as he did last summer when there was a chorus of demands for him to sharpen up his act and one poll in mid-September showed the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck?

Critics were made to wait for the Labour leader's response – an agenda-setting party conference speech in which he promised a freeze on energy prices and made a broader attack on what he dubbed the “cost of living crisis”. By January this year, the gap in voting intentions had widened to give a Labour a lead of seven or nine points, depending on your choice of pollster.

So, Team Miliband will be watching to see how the post-Budget polls settle down as Labour prepares for a policy forum in early June.

Already, two new surveys out this morning show a wider gap than the weekend's headline-grabbing one point. A ComRes poll for The Independent gives Labour a five-point lead over the Tories (Con 31, Lab 36, Lib Dems 9, Ukip 11) and and a new YouGov poll for The Sun shows a two-point Labour lead (Con 36, Lab 38, Lib Dems 10, Ukip 10). 

The big question is whether George Osborne's Budget, with its radical pension and savings reforms, proves to be a game-changer – revolutionary enough to give the Tories a real chance of winning the next election. The signs are that it wasn't.

We know what a real Osborne game-changer looks like. In 2007, with the Tories trailing in the polls and Gordon Brown seemingly heading for a snap general election, Osborne promised to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million if the Tories came to power. It proved so media- and voter-friendly that it scared Brown off calling the election.

The Tories failed, of course, to win an outright victory in 2010 and their dependence on Lib Dem support consigned Osborne’s inheritance tax pledge to the Treasury waste bin. 

There is no doubt Osborne’s Budget was a hit with the Tory press and it has undoubtedly boosted Tory morale. For a start, he avoided another disaster like his 2012 'Omnishambles' (the granny tax, the pasty tax). His pension and savings reforms have been well-received.

But the effect on voting intention has been limited – mainly explained by Ukip supporters returning to the Tory fold. (The BBC's Nick Robinson described Osborne's savings and pensions reforms as a "heat-seeking missile" aimed at Nigel Farage.)

A Populus poll gives a clue to why the public haven't got over-excited: ordinary voters do not share Westminster’s obsession with the minutiae of policy. 

A couple of days after the Budget they asked 2,000 people what they remembered. “Nothing” topped the list with 26 per cent. Only pensions and personal tax allowances made it into double figures while another nine measures registered only single-figure memories.

Despite the post-Budget polls, the average Labour lead over the Tories through March is still three points - enough to give Miliband a Commons majority of 32, according to a projection by UK Polling Report, while the Tories need to be nine points ahead of Labour to win a similar majority.

This huge discrepancy in what the two major parties need in terms of popular vote to win a majority in the Commons remains a bone of contention for Conservatives. (Remember, the Tories won 37 per cent of the vote against Labour's 30 per cent in the 2010 general election – but it was not enough to hand them a majority.) 

It's partly down to uneven constituency sizes, especially in Scotland and Wales, which David Cameron had intended to correct – up to a point – with boundary reforms in 2011. But these came a cropper when the Tories scuppered Nick Clegg's attempt to win a referendum on the introduction of an Alternative Vote system – and the Lib Dems got their own back by refusing to support the boundary changes.

Another factor is Labour’s superiority in local campaigning. After the 2005 general election, a detailed study by Electoral Calculus concluded that “Labour has been much more successful at winning the borderline seats… where it has won nearly half the possible seats. The Conservatives only win about one sixth of their possible seats.” 

Based on past electoral cycles, David Cameron can count on a further swing towards the government before the May 2015 election. But a big enough swing to win a Tory majority in the Commons looks like an impossibly big ask.

Support for Labour - currently boosted by disillusioned Lib Dem voters – would need to collapse. The Lib Dems would have to make a dramatic recovery. The Tories would need not only to smash Ukip but also win over Labour and Lib Dems supporters. 

Whatever the instant post–Budget opinion polls might suggest, Ed Miliband still looks the most likely next Prime Minister, either in coalition with the Lib Dems or with a small overall Labour majority. ·