Leader: Regaining voters' trust could decide election winner

WITH more than two weeks of campaigning still to go, it is hard to see what more surprises this General Election can bring. But surprises there will almost certainly be.

In the wake of the first party leaders' debate last week, support for the Liberal Democrats has spiked. The Conservatives look on average to have suffered more than Labour. One poll even puts the Liberal Democrats in second place behind the Conservatives, with Labour trailing third.

But does this really herald a new dawn in British politics? Or might it reinforce the old order, though with different dynamics?

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In terms of votes cast, the polls point to an upheaval of sorts. But in terms of seats, Labour could still end up with a greater score than the Conservatives and Gordon Brown could yet be back in Downing Street. Lib Dem support would enable him to govern through a hung parliament. But such is the UK's unhappy record with hung parliaments, how long could such a coalition be expected to last? A second election could follow within a year.

Only two points can be made with any certainty. The first is that prospects for a Conservative overall majority have retreated further, with a hung parliament looking more likely. The second is that, in any such scenario, Nick Clegg will have a powerful say in who will be the next prime minister.

But even these two predictions must come with caveats. The current bunching of party support in the latest polls is within the conventional margin of error. This alone warrants the strongest caution in interpretation and analysis.

Also, polling day is still two and half weeks away. The fresh support for the Lib Dems may fall back under a combined onslaught from Labour, the Conservatives and the Scottish Nationalists.

There are two leader debates still to come. The public has not yet had the opportunity to see how the SNP would fare. Certainly on current trends the Nationalists have been marginalised and their leader Alex Salmond looks to be left embarrassingly short of his proclaimed target of 20 seats.

One marked finding in the latest poll conducted for The Scotsman is that voters do not seem to be buying the SNP message that "more Nats means less cuts". A hefty 52 per cent disagree. But our poll also finds scepticism among Scots about other policies. For example, there seems little support for the suggestion that parents should be allowed to set up and run their own schools.

But there is little comfort in the poll for Labour. Half of those polled do not believe that Labour will not raise income tax rates and 54 per cent don't believe Labour will keep its promise to stop immigrants with poor English taking public sector jobs. Deep scepticism over the promises being made is a recurring theme. The final result could now critically depend on the success that any leader now has in re-building trust with the voters.