THE latest YouGov poll in Britain puts the Conservatives ahead of Labour by 39 to 38 per cent. Most polls get their results from face-to-face or telephone interviews; YouGov is different in that its respondents are contacted online. This is not the first time that YouGov has shown the Conservative Party in the lead in response to the standard “If there were a general election tomorrow...” question; in June, July and August when Iain Duncan Smith was in charge he had a two or three point lead but for the rest of the year Labour has held a small advantage.

Michael Howard's assumption of the Conservative leadership has not greatly affected the proportion of voters ready to vote for the party - the Conservatives would need a much greater margin of advantage over Labour than YouGov's predicted one point in order to be able to form a government - but it does seem to have had a dramatic effect on people's view of the Liberal Democrats. In September, at the time of the Brent by-election, the three parties were neck-and-neck but since then support for Charles Kennedy's party has plummeted to the point that it has lost twelve percentage points and is now at 18 per cent, its lowest share of the vote in 2003. The obvious interpretation of this decline is that voters were ready to think favourably about Mr Kennedy when Iain Duncan Smith led the Conservatives but see less reason for doing so now that Mr Howard is successfully taking on Tony Blair in the House of Commons.

Events of the next three months - the Hutton report, Iraq and the top-up fees controversy especially - are likely to lead to much greater volatility in polling results than has been seen in 2003.