Blair problems as Tories hit 40% in poll

David Cameron's high risk strategy of breaking ranks with the Government over terrorism seems to have paid off as the Tories hit the critical 40% mark in public support.

By Graham Dines

David Cameron's high risk strategy of breaking ranks with the Government over terrorism seems to have paid off as the Tories hit the critical 40% mark in public support. Political Editor Graham Dines says it adds to the already heavy press on Tony Blair who is losing the backing of voters and Labour activists.

IN less than five weeks, Tony Blair faces his most difficult Labour Party conference since becoming leader.

For all but two weeks of the 12 years since his election, Labour has been ahead in the opinion polls.


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Even the catastrophic error of judgement in joining George W. Bush's little adventure in the Iraqi desert failed to dent Mr Blair's invincibility.

But as the fractious rows with Gordon Brown over just when the Prime Minister will step down grow more and more bitter, combined with his Government's failures on asylum policy and his uncritical support for Israel, Mr Blair's waning popularity is dragging down the Labour Party.

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Yesterday, an ICM poll for The Guardian showed Labour's popularity down at 31%. All the ratcheting up of the alleged terror plot to blow up United States-bound airliners leaving London and the draconian clamp down on airport security has made voters question whether the Government is giving an honest account of the threat facing the UK.

Many appear to think that the Government is actively exaggerating the danger while an incredible 72% believe it is our close association with the Bush administration that has increased the risk facing Britain and Britons.

It was the fallout from these terror alerts which led Conservative leader David Cameron to lead an assault on the Government's homeland security policies. A furious Home Secretary accused the Conservatives of opportunism and giving succour to potential terrorists - right or wrong Dr John Reid was intimating the Government is always right.

The Tories have hit 40% public support - the benchmark needed from which to mount a successful election push, even though that election does not have to be held until May 2010.

The Liberal Democrats under Sir Menzies Campbell have seen a considerable rise in their fortunes as Labour flails about. The Lib Dems have found a particular resonance with voters over their principled opposition to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Then there is the ignominy of croquet loving and cowboy admiring Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott - the man technically in charge of the country when his boss is away - being voted one of Britain's favourite figures of fun, and not forgetting that cash-for-peerages investigators from Scotland Yard are all set to interview Mr Blair on his return to the UK.

To cap it all, Labour's coffers are running dry and who knows what demands the unions will make if they are called on to bankroll Labour's election campaign.

All of which gives Mr Blair much to contemplate as he sips a cool beer or three in a sun-drenched Barbados, before heading back to the UK's miserable bank holiday weather.

He knows that fear of defeat at the next election will whip up mounting calls in his own party to call it a day and give up life at No 10. This will manifest itself in the bars and at fringe meetings when Labour holds its annual conference in Manchester towards the end of next month.

Those Labour MPs sitting in soft southern seats, far away from the party's working class strongholds, are most at risk, It is in the likes of Waveney, Harlow and Basildon where MPs, sitting on majorities vulnerable to a major revival in Tory fortunes, which the Conservatives have to win if they are to topple Labour next time.

The ICM poll shows that Labour is suffering badly among middle-class voters, many of whom live in the marginal seats of London, the east, south-east, south-west and east midlands that helped Mr Blair win power in 1997 and hold on in 2001 and 2005.

Labour will point to its strong lead among voters aged under 24 - but this group is less likely to vote than any other age range.

However, the biggest pointer to a difficult few months ahead is Gordon Brown's low profile over the summer. He has allowed possible leadership rival John Reid to take the limelight before what is likely to be a barnstorming performance at the party conference by the Chancellor.

The only way to take the heat off himself is for the Prime Minister to announce at conference the date for his departure but don't hold your breath. Expect a “much done, much more to do” rallying-cry designed to buy him more time to tackle the NHS, immigration and school reforms.

But when autumn turns into winter with party managers considering Labour can't stand another 12 months of the damaged Tony Blair, then the game might be up.

Labour has only to cast its collective mind back to November 1990 for a precedent. Margaret Thatcher remained the darling of the Conservative faithful, but after being knifed by her Cabinet and MPs, her colourless successor John Major went on to rescue the Tory Party and lead it to victory 17 months later.

ICM POLL FINDINGS

Conservatives: 40%, up 1%

Labour: 31%, down 4%

Liberal Democrats: 22%, up 5%

(An aggregate of recent opinion polls by online statisticians Electoral Calculus, published yesterday, puts the Tory lead over Labour at 5%)

Do you think government policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have made this country a target for terrorists:

More of a target: 71%

Less of a target: 1%

No difference: 22%

Don't know: 5%

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