Nick Clegg may live to regret his phrase “two-horse race” to describe the Oldham East and Saddleworth byelection – if his own party is pushed into third place.
It is an outcome that most commentators seem to have discounted. (Paddy Power is offering 4:1 on Labour first, Tories second and Lib Dems third, which offers good value in my opinion.) But it seems feasible given that Nick Clegg’s party is currently suffering in the national polls at around 11 per cent support – half where they were last spring.
From a news point of view, however, it would a fascinating result as it would undermine the stability of Mr Clegg’s leadership and the coalition itself.
Of course Lib Dems believe they can pull off a victory for various reasons; a] the party has demonstrated strong support in various council elections in the area b] Labour is tarnished by the Phil Woolas saga and c] the Tories don’t seem to be pulling out the stops in an attempt to help their coalition friends.
Yet these could turn out to be straws in the wind, because a] local victories by Lib Dems were months ago before Clegg’s ratings plummeted, b] Phil Woolas is not the candidate this time and c] the Tories have a strong candidate and dozens of Conservative MPs are up there campaigning.
I haven’t been up to the constituency (although one of my colleagues is there today) and don’t have an on-the-ground sense of how the campaigns are going. Bear in mind though that in May the Lib Dems and Labour were both at just under 32 per cent and the Tories were not far behind at 26.4 per cent. It’s a genuine three-way marginal and that is what makes it such an unusually interesting contest.