As expected, the parliamentary Liberal Party in New South Wales yesterday elected Barry O’Farrell unopposed as its new leader – its 19th. And as usual, inflated claims were being bandied around – the Sydney Morning Herald headlined its reader response blog with “Is O’Farrell a Liberal messiah?”

It’s tragic or ironic depending on your point of view, but the Liberal Party (and not just in NSW) always places an inordinate amount of faith and trust in its leaders, and more often than not it’s poorly served by them.

O’Farrell at least has got the essential precondition of a clear run at the job; he has time to build a profile and try to get the party in order before the next election rolls around. In a deeply divided party, O’Farrell’s centre-right credentials are about the best hope for unity they’re likely to get.

But there are no guarantees in politics, and if O’Farrell’s poll ratings in about three years time are bad, his colleagues are quite capable of dumping him at the last minute. That’s what happened to Peter Collins before the 1999 election.

If the NSW Liberals do get their act together, the next election is certainly winnable. But it will not be easy. Final counting this week shows that the Iemma government has retained a substantial buffer.

Adam Carr at Psephos has constructed a new pendulum, which gives 3.8% as the swing needed for Labor to lose its absolute majority, but that includes margins against independents or (in the case of Balmain) the Greens.

A swing to the opposition would not necessarily translate to the benefit of independents as well, and even if it did, it is quite probable that some of them – those in what would otherwise be Labor seats, such as Sydney or Lake Macquarie – would vote to keep Labor in office if they had the balance of power.

The realistic target for O’Farrell’s opposition is the swing needed to win a majority for the Coalition with the aid of independents in naturally non-Labor (or at least marginal) seats. That requires a net gain of eight seats, which on the final results would require a uniform swing of 6.3%. Before the election the corresponding figure was 8.9%.

So while it wouldn’t quite be fair to say that the opposition’s target date has blown out to 2015 – as they had feared a couple of weeks ago – 2011 is still going to be a big ask.