Ardour of honeymoon cools as Blair moves closer to No 10

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The closer Tony Blair gets to Downing Street, the more sceptical the British public becomes about him, according to NOP's opinion poll for the Independent.

Although half of those questioned by NOP last weekend thought Labour under Mr Blair was "ready to form the next government", this is a marked fall from the two-thirds (66 per cent) who agreed with a similar statement during Mr Blair's honeymoon period just after he was elected leader in 1994.

The latest figure also suggests a continuing decline since January this year, when Mori found that 56 per cent thought Labour was "ready to form the next government" and 54 per cent thought Mr Blair was "ready to be prime minister".

Similarly, the proportion saying that Labour was not ready has risen steadily - from 25 per cent in December 1994, 33 per cent in January this year, and 39 per cent now.

Encouraging findings for Mr Blair in the Independent/NOP telephone poll of 1,005 people include the one-in-five Conservative voters and the two- in-five Liberal Democrat voters who say Labour is ready to form the next government.

Whether or not Labour is ready, a Labour government after the next election is now regarded as almost certain, according to a separate poll of 256 "opinion leaders" for the Independent. This poll found that 76 per cent believe Labour will win the general election, which must be held within 12 months.

A further 7 per cent think no party will have an overall majority in the Commons, in which case Labour would be likely to form a minority administration.

Of the sample of company directors, senior civil servants, media editors, politicians and trade union leaders, designed to reflect the views of people who have the power to influence public opinion, more than half - 57 per cent - think Labour will win with a working majority. A further 19 per cent think Labour will win, but without a working majority, usually defined as one of fewer than 10 seats, which is unlikely to survive a full parliamentary term.

Only 8 per cent think the Conservatives will win.

This poll, carried out by Opinion Leader Research, could reinforce the pressure for an autumn election, as it suggests deepening gloom on the economic front. Since July last year, the proportion thinking the economic situation improved over the previous 12 months collapsed from 83 to 55 per cent.

The overall impact of John Major's declaration of the "beef war" against Britain's European partners will be measured by voting intention figures in a closely watched Mori poll to be published tomorrow.

The Independent's NOP poll suggests the impact on how people intend to vote will be limited, although it could reinforce Tory support. Only 6 per cent of electors said the campaign to disrupt Brussels business made them "more likely" to vote Tory at the next election against 19 per cent who said "less likely".

Is Labour ready to form the next government?

All Con Lab L Dem

Yes 50% 19% 82% 42%

No 38% 71% 10% 51%