With so many chinks in the government's armour – everything from cows to petrol – why are the Tories failing to strike?
If a modern democracy is badly governed it is seldom the fault of its government, but rather that of the government's opposition. Today, in Britain, the economy has hardly ever been in better shape, and in that respect the New Labour government has been a roaring success. Yet there is still a sense of unease among the electorate. New Labour has become synonymous with the spin doctoring of almost every issue; indeed, in the public's opinion, of every issue. It appears not so much dogmatic as deceitful, capable of proving the unprovable.

But there seems to be a streak of incompetence that is at odds with its highly competent spinning of issues. A useless dome, a bridge that cannot be used because it sways, a museum with the wrong stone in the facade – these are all small things that in the normal course of events would not amount to a can of beans. Set, however, against the background of protests over petrol tax and uncertainty over the ramifications and dangers of BSE, these small hiccups have a danger, in the right circumstances, of choking a government to death. However, they have not set the opinion polls rising in favour of the Conservative opposition.

To quote Bob Worcester, the chairman of MORI, opinion polls are like an 800 pound gorilla that you poke with a stick; most of the time it will only smile a benign smile, but then the smallest poke and the beast goes mad, tearing your limbs apart. This begs the question, "Why on earth does the opposition not give this quiet gorilla a poke or two and set it going, tearing New Labour limb from limb?"

The answer, of course, is that they are just not up to it. They are, in fact, hampered by a recent period in office, the longest of any government this century. Whatever they suggest always smacks of the question, "Why on earth did they not do this while in power?" Save the pound? The Conservatives could have put the pound well beyond danger when in office.

Save us from the excesses of the European Union and its bureaucracy in Brussels? They had years of power to put an end to this. So what price their new-found enthusiasm for these courses in opposition? As a result, New Labour, despite its obvious defects, sits well ahead in the polls.

On the danger issues, such as the abolition of hunting, the environment and the countryside, both parties are vulnerable. And in the opinion of most people, the general level of taxation will probably get higher whichever party is in power.

If you can’t sparkle in opposition, for heaven’s sake, why would a voter believe that you could make even a modest fist of government?

The fact is that promises in opposition are one thing, action in power quite another. The Australians call the opposition "gunners" — as in "gunner do this" and "gunner do that". When, in fact, they are given the chance, they do very little of any of it.

Sometimes the same can be said for parties in government. The Conservative track record for reducing taxation was not an exciting one under John Major. What happened to his promise on inheritance tax ("I want to see wealth cascading down the generations")? Precisely nothing. It was just another dose of rhetoric, yet another unfulfilled promise.

There is no real evidence at the moment that the Tories would be a better or, indeed, a different government than New Labour. There is no "New Conservative party", just the same old party with the same old party tricks. The clowns' jokes are old ones, the magicians' tricks are tired and their secrets known.

If you can't sparkle in opposition, for heaven's sake, why would a voter believe that you could make even a modest fist of government? And still the gorilla of the opinion polls sits waiting to be stirred into action, perhaps even longing for a chance to show a self-satisfied government how life really is.

It will, I suppose, be industrial trouble that brings down this government, as industrial trouble brought down so many governments in the second half of the last century. The chancellor in his budget will probably patch up the crisis caused by the fuel tax lobby, the government machine may well divide and rule the constituent parts of the fuel tax movement, but the idea is now out there that industrial action can reduce tax more easily and quickly than opposition parties.