Waking up to find that the Tories have regained popularity is certainly a strange feeling. Maybe they can fail a bit better this time

The late Harold Wilson famously said “a week is a long time in politics”, implying that over seven days myriad events could occur to sway the fickle and mobile public. Baroness Falkender, for many years his political aide, preferred the opinion that the electorate made up its mind which way it was going to vote two years before an election. So there you have it – even within the same office, opinions on the mechanism by which a government is elected can be entirely different.

It certainly was strange to wake up a few days ago and find the Conservatives only three points behind Labour after years of languishing a dozen points adrift. Strange because, although the Labour party has spent the past two years trying to lose the next election, the Conservative party has only just started trying to win it.

This change in the polls, however, is only a beginning; an election today would still leave Labour with a 100-seat majority. A majority that is still vast, and although the Conservative would be reinforced with extra troops, the Labour party would be as fimly in control as ever.

The Conservatives have hired the Australian hitman who is credited with winning four elections for Michael Howard’s Australian counterpart, John Howard. This strategist, Lynton Crosby, stood behind John Howard when he played the race card. Howard claimed Australia should severely limit immigration. Australia, a vast continent with a population that divides into our own three times, was apparently getting overpopulated – a proposition that you probably have to be Australian to grasp.

To demonstrate his intent, John Howard deported a group of Afghans who claimed that they were fleeing from Afghanistan – a story that seems fairly plausible. This was a bit harsh, especially since the remote northern parts of Australian were opened up with the help of Afghans and their camels. Those camels still roam in Australian’s deserts and occasionally are sold to Saudi Arabia. For years the early settlers relied on the Afghans for their post and supplies. The point of this is that the Afghans helped the north. Today, in Australia’s south, all has been forgotten.

In Britain the Conservative and the Labour parties are in a bidding contest to see who can be nastiest to immigrants. The total number of immigrants in this country amounts to about 4.8% of the population, of whom 50% are skilled people whose help we badly need. Ironically the largest group of immigrants in Britain are Australians. Perhaps they brought their immigration policies with them.

The Conservatives and Labour are in a bidding contest to see who can be nastiest to immigrants

In the next few weeks we will see policy after policy appear – parties facing an election promising ideas that never occurred to them when in power – and the bidding stakes will be raised further still. This will not be an edifying spectacle and no doubt the people will not believe anyone anyway. Perhaps, as Baroness Falkender suggested, their minds are made up.

In a horse race, at a photo finish, it is the horse that comes from behind that usually wins. In politics, the election of 1970, which the Conservatives won unexpectedly, was an example of this. But an opinion poll, such as the one released this week, is just a snapshot in time. Showing the trend is what matters. As yet, it is too early to say with any certainty if there is a trend towards a Conservative victory. Even if such a trend does begin to develop between now and the beginning of April, it will not gather enough speed to bring a Conservative victory – unless the election is postponed until 2006.

There is one thing that still haunts the Labour party – the ghost of 1978, when James Callaghan postponed an election only to be forced into a losing one in 1979. But Callaghan had a majority of two and a terrible winter; Tony Blair has a majority of 160 and the summer.

Lord McAlpine is a writer and former treasurer of the Conservative party.