Brown government even more unpopular than Major’s

Author: By Andrew Grice, Political Editor

Gordon Brown?s government is even more unpopular than John Major?s
administration before it slumped to an inevitable defeat at the 1997
election. The grim findings may embolden Labour backbenchers who are
plotting another attempt to force the Prime Minister to stand down before
the general election. One critic said today: ?We can?t go on sleepwalking to
defeat. Something has got to give.?

Last year, Labour got a five-point boost from the autumn party conference
season but the latest study shows there was no similar benefit from this
year?s conferences. Ministers had hoped to close the gap last month but
Labour?s failure leaves them pinning their hopes for a revival on the
forthcoming Pre-Budget Report, which will spell out the Government?s
spending priorities.

The latest weighted average of the polls puts the Tories on 42 per cent,
Labour on 28 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 18 per cent. These
figures would give Mr Cameron an overall majority of 90 if repeated at a
general election. Although Labour is three points up on the previous month,
the Tories are also up three, so Labour has made no inroads into its
14-point lead.

Labour is less popular than the Major government at the same stage of the
electoral cycle. It averaged 30 per cent in surveys taken between the 1996
Tory conference and the end of October that year.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiled
the ?poll of polls,? said: ?Labour must be increasingly concerned that too
many voters have fallen out of love with the party for too long for it to
have much hope of making a significant recovery between now and a general
election that has to be held within eight months.?

This year?s conferences did not appear to have any real impact on the relative
standing of the three main parties, said Professor Curtice. ?The battle for
economic competence is still clearly being won by the Conservatives,? he
added. ?Indeed, if anything they are becoming increasingly successful in
persuading the public they are the better economic managers. It seems as
though the Tories? focus at their conference on how they would handle the
debt crisis and the economy did them no harm at all. It is difficult to see
how Labour will succeed in narrowing the Tory lead unless it can reverse
this perception.?

The crumb of comfort for Labour is that the Tories have not regained the
popularity ratings they enjoyed last year. Between May and September last
year, Mr Cameron?s party averaged 44 per cent in the ?poll of polls.?

Professor Curtice said: ?David Cameron must still be concerned that he has
still not ?sealed the deal? with sufficient voters so that Labour could not
at least claw its way back to hung-parliament territory.?

One explanation for that could be damage suffered by the controversy over MPs?
expenses. However, support for minor parties appears to have declined and
has almost returned to its level before the European Parliament elections in
June, when UKIP and the British National Party gained ground.

But there is little sign of a boost for the BNP following the appearance of
its leader Nick Griffin on BBC TV?s ?Question Time? programme. Two surveys
conducted since do not suggest it had a positive impact, although a third
did suggest the party had gone up from two to four per cent.

Brown allies dismissed speculation of another coup attempt, pointing out that
the Prime Minister saw off two previous rebellions last summer and this
June. But his critics plan to field a ?Brown must go? candidate against Tony
Lloyd, a loyalist who comes up for re-election as chairman of the
Parliamentary Labour Party later this month.

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