1.6% inflation: is this the turning point for Tory election prospects?
If wages are shown to be outstripping inflation, Labour's cost-of-living argument collapses
HAS the economy finally turned a corner that could give the Conservatives victory in the 2015 general election?
What senior Tories have been waiting for is figures showing wage rises outstripping inflation for the first time in six years: this would destroy Labour's argument that most voters are worse off under the coalition government and hopefully persuade the electorate that the long years of austerity have paid off.
This morning the first shoe dropped: latest figures, just released, show inflation in March fellto 1.6 per cent. Tomorrow the other shoes drops – and the expectation is that the figures eagerly awaited from the Office of National Statistics will show wage rises have gone up by as much as 1.8 per cent.
David Cameron and George Osborne will be cock-a-hoop - while Labour will need to find a new tune to replace their cost-of-living refrain.
Until this morning, Cameron and Osborne had been deflated by the opinion polls showing the recent Budget fizz had fizzled out and that Labour had restored a strong lead over the Tories, between five and seven points, depending on your choice of pollster.
Ed Miliband, meanwhile, has continued to bang the cost-of-living drum, based on the assumption that most voters feel worse off – to the tune of £1,600 - under the coalition government, because inflation has kept ahead of wage rises.
If wage have now crept ahead, then, as the Daily Mail argues, it means Labour’s entire election strategy will effectively become redundant.
Clearly confident that today's new inflation figure would support his argument, Osborne used a speech in the US at the weekend to crow that Labour were "wrong about the past and they are wrong about the future".
Osborne and Cameron have reason to be positive – but not to be complacent, says Peter Kellner, the head of YouGov, writing for The Guardian.
All the fundamentals are in Cameron’s favour, says Kellner: the economy is improving and voters are noticing. A year ago, 74 per cent said the economy was in a bad state; only four per cent said it was good. Today, just 43 per cent say bad, while 22 per cent say good. This time last year, the verdict on the coalition's handling of the economy was a terrible minus 35 (28 per cent said well, 63 per cent badly). Now, the gap has closed to just minus 6, with 42 per cent saying well, 48 per cent badly.
Although Cameron's personal rating has slipped in the past few days due to the Maria Miller expenses scandal, from minus 9 to minus 16, he is still ahead of where he was a year ago – and well ahead of both Ed Miliband (minus 26) and Nick Clegg (minus 51)
Cameron also leads Miliband head-to-head when people are asked who would make the best prime minister. YouGov’s latest figures put the Tory leader 16 points ahead, by 36 to 20 per cent.
"I can find no example of a party losing an election when it is ahead on both leadership and economic competence," writes Kellner. "If Britain's recovery is sustained (especially if living standards start to improve) and Cameron is able to maintain his lead over Miliband, we are likely to see a swing back from Labour to Conservative over the next 12 months – as we have every time in the past half century that a Tory prime minister has led his or her party into a general election."
So, with a year to go before the May 2105 general election, what can stop the Tories winning? Simple, says Kellner: the Tory party itself.
Their expected drubbing in next month’s European Parliament elections by Ukip could lead to renewed infighting.
"If those Tory MPs who can't stand him – for personal or political reasons, or both – demand changes that Cameron can't or won't deliver, and undermine his leadership, then the Tories might go into next year's election badly divided.''
Watch this space.