Tories under siege as polls show Labour closing gap

WHAT a difference a couple of months can make. At the start of 2010, the Tories looked unassailable, with a consistent ten point lead in the opinion polls that would have translated into an outright majority at the election. Labour was imploding, while Gordon Brown was fighting yet another coup attempt, the terribly-planned “snow plot” led by Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt. Prospective Tory candidates were privately discussing what ministerial job they would start lobbying for once David Cameron was Prime Minister. It was, they assumed, a done deal.

Since then, Labour has started closing the gap. This can’t be put down to the odd erroneous opinion poll –?there is a clear trend. Take the YouGov poll conducted for the Sunday Times between 18 and 19 February, which gives the Tories a vulnerable six point lead; that puts Cameron on course to win just 290 seats at the next general election –10 more than Labour – leading to a hung parliament. This is the worst result for the Tories in a YouGov poll since December 2008, when Brown was riding high on his rescue package for British banks.

Other polls are putting the Tory lead slightly higher. A ComRes survey for religious pressure group Theos yesterday had them eight points clear of Labour, but one simple fact remains: the party has lost a significant amount of ground in a short space of time.

In private, Tory strategists say they think they can eke out a majority with anything over a five point national advantage, thanks to their lead in marginal constituencies. For what it’s worth, Labour tends to agree. Although polling in these seats is notoriously expensive and difficult, few pollsters think that the national surveys are being fair to the Tories.

But whatever gloss the Conservatives use, the latest raft of polls make terrible reading for team Cameron. The YouGov/Sunday Times survey gives Labour a 33 per cent share of the national vote – just three points less than the 36 per cent Tony Blair managed at the 2005 general election. Put another way, that means Brown has lost the support of a mere one in 12 voters since 2005.

Labour has run up a yawning £178bn budget deficit, unemployment is soaring, and the UK is crawling out of the worst recession since World War Two. It should be easy for the Tories to blame this on the extraordinarily unpopular Brown, but instead they have changed the minds of one in 12. Cameron really is lucky that the government of the day is so ineffectual.

The received wisdom at Conservative HQ has always been that modern man Cameron is their biggest asset, while the dinosaurs and bed blockers (old Tory MPs who never retire, preventing the young Cameroons from getting seats) are a massive liability. Similarly, prospective candidates – even those on the trendy A-List – say they are kept on an extraordinarily tight leash, feeding voters a selection of pre-prepared soundbites approved by central office.

That view is looking increasingly untenable, with a poll by showing that Cameron’s personal lead over Brown has halved in the last five months. In mid-September, the Tory leader had a net performance rating of +36 (calculated by subtracting the percentage who thought he was doing a good job from those who thought he wasn’t). Brown was 91 points behind, with a rating of -55. Now Cameron’s lead has halved to 45; he scores +12 against the Prime Minister’s -33.

The collapse in the Tory leader’s personal poll rating has been more severe than the narrowing in the polls, suggesting his popularity is fading faster than the party’s. A last minute about-turn, which saw Conservative HQ scrap plans to brand the party as “Cameron’s Conservatives” on election leaflets, was a lucky escape.

None of the polls are suggesting that Labour can win the election. Instead they point to a hung parliament, which would be a complete disaster, according to most in the City. Unless the next government has a majority big enough to push through unpopular spending cuts to shrink the deficit, the county runs the very real risk of a sovereign debt crisis.

Morgan Stanley analysts recently said that if rating agencies were to strip the UK of its AAA status, there could be a sell-off in government bonds, alongside a flight in some domestic capital and severe sterling weakness. Such a toxic combination could force the Bank of England to put up interest rates to stabilise the pound, strangling the economic recovery in its infancy. Such a chain of events could push the yields on 10-year UK gilts up by 150 basis points, says Morgan Stanley, raising borrowing costs to over five per cent, the kind of terms that tragic Greece can expect.

Cameron is already considering plans to call a second snap election if he doesn’t win an outright majority, but the stakes would be extraordinarily high. Just because the City knows how awful a hung parliament would be, it doesn’t mean the public does. According to the YouGov/Sunday Times poll, 53 per cent of voters want the parties to work together in the event of a hung parliament, while just 34 per cent of voters would want another election.

Outside observers say Cameron’s problems are obvious. He has run a flaky, fuzzy campaign that hasn’t capitalised on Labour’s obvious weakness: the disastrous state of the economy and the perilous public finances.

On the deficit, the Tories are happy to crow when economists and Sir Richard Branson back plans to make cuts in 2010, but the truth is that George Osborne’s policies are even woollier than Alistair Darling’s. He plans to cut a “large part” of the “structural” deficit over the next Parliament; such words look weak against Labour’s promise to “halve the deficit within four years”, even if it is based on laughably optimistic growth forecasts.

Then there are the gaffes, such as last week’s bungled teenage pregnancy figures that claimed 54 per cent of girls in the most deprived areas were likely to fall pregnant before the age of 18 (the real figure was 5.4 per cent). Cameron’s broadside against Lily Allen, and his comments on the sexualisation of young girls, also muddied the waters, especially when the Tories should be simplifying their campaign messages.

Cameron has a habit of pulling things back from the brink (remember the brave inheritance tax cut pledge that stopped Brown calling an early election he looked set to win?). But with several national papers launching daily polls, a constant barrage of “Tory lead slips” headlines could soon end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Clichéd as it sounds, his time is running out.