Amidst the Liberal Democrat euphoria after the decisive victory of Nick Clegg in the leader's debate, a few people have become rather excitable about the prospects for the party this election. The immediate, dramatic moves in the first opinion polls do not yet mean that the Liberal Democrats are poised for government. However, what they do mean is that the voters may now be prepared to listen the the party's ideas in a way that they were not doing previously. It may also mean that the threat from the Conservative Party in many of our own seats has now been checked- though even this is far from certain. It probably does mean that several hoped-for gains may now materialise. In short, the Liberal Democrats may be able to hold what they have and make gains- and that seemed a wild hope only three months ago.
The next phase of the campaign is now going to start, and the temptation for the Conservatives may well be to launch an all-out attack on the Liberal Democrats. This, however has got to be done exceptionally carefully- the voters are saying that they don't want the old style politics, and negative attacks could easily backfire. The Tories, for the moment, still think that they can ignore and patronise the Liberal Democrats- but if the spike in Lib Dem support continues, then they will certainly move into attack mode. As for Labour, the hapless performance of Gordon Brown is a clear problem. They have tried to love-bomb the Lib Dems. Such a wooing is not really taken seriously in Cowley St, because the Liberal Democrats will need to protect their Tory flank- attacking Labour is the best way to do this, but it could be significant later. The hostility that the Conservatives feel may mean that the Tories may refuse to go into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and yet not have sufficient support to go it alone.
In the aftermath, many punters are being tempted towards hyperbole: words like "game-changer", "tipping point" and even our old friend "breaking the mould" are being mentioned. After so-many election disappointments, I remain a little cautious. However something big did happen in the first debate: the British people- disillusioned with the Labour government and only luke-warm about what is seen as a slick, PR driven Conservative Party have now begun to think that the Liberal Democrats offer a really different agenda. It is an agenda that they recognise as bringing about the rather inchoate desire for "change" in the wake of the economic disaster and political scandals that have beset Britain in the last five years. They like what they see: Vince Cable and Nick Clegg are a more inspiring team than George Osborne and David Cameron, let alone Gordon Brown and Gordon Brown. Perhaps they recognise that the Liberal Democrats have been in the right on some important issues: the economy and the Iraq war not least. They may understand that the Liberal Democrats ideas on constitutional change rest on a commitment of decades of clear principles.
Most importantly though the voters are beginning to alter their attitude to the party from "Liberal Democrats: Why bother?", to "Liberal Democrats: Why Not?". That does not mean that we have won their votes, but it does mean that we have got them listening.
Now the Party is going to have its mettle tested in a way that we have never seen before. Our ideas will rightly be scrutinised in far more detail. Our candidates will come under pressure. There will be damage and embarassment along the way: no party is perfect. However, this examination will be nothing compared to the test of responsibility if the election does deliver a minority Parliament. The focus and discipline that will now be required will be beyond anything we have ever known. However we should be grateful that after so many years of setbacks and false dawns, that finally we can put forward our views without the sniping that they are irrelevant and that a vote for our party is simply a "wasted vote".
I have believed for a while that the Liberal Democrats may do better in 2010 than we did in 2005. The question for the last phase of the campaign will be simply how much better can we do? That question will irritate Conservatives, many of whom still think that their victory is both likely and necessary, but it should terrify Labour, whose failure to replace Gordon Brown when they had the chance now looks like a death wish.
When- or should I say "if", given the problems of the volcanic cloud- I return to the UK, I shall join the campaign in Scotland with renewed determination and hope. Hope that at last the country can finally escape the shackles of a political system constructed for the 19th century, not the 21st century. Hope that the big state of Labour can be replaced not by the "Big Society" of the Cameroons, but a genuinely Liberal country where people make decisions for themselves.
An idea whose time has come? I still believe it is worth the fight.