Election '97: Lib Dems beat Tories in the campaign stakes

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The Liberal Democrats have beaten the Tories into third place when voters are asked which party has "run the most effective campaign so far", according to a MORI opinion poll, writes John Rentoul.

In direct contrast to media commentators' view that Tony Blair has fought an uninspiring and error-prone campaign, 36 per cent of those surveyed said Labour had run the best campaign. Labour was well ahead of the Liberal Democrats on 13 per cent, who pushed the Tories into third place on 11 per cent.

The findings of the poll, carried out on Tuesday this week for the Times, are also at odds with the trend in party support in the polls over the five weeks of the campaign so far. Labour's average level of support has fallen slightly from just above 50 per cent when John Major called the election in mid-March to just below 50 per cent now.

But Paddy Ashdown's greater exposure during the campaign seems to have helped lift the Liberal Democrats, who have seen their poll ratings rise over the past five weeks. The average Tory poll rating has also risen slightly during the campaign, despite voters giving Mr Major's campaign a big thumbs-down.

Again contradicting most commentators, who have been impressed with the Prime Minister's bold and personal appeal to the nation, fewer voters are impressed by the Tory campaign this time than were five years ago. Comparing the figures with those published on 30 March 1992, at the same stage of the last election campaign, suggests that Mr Ashdown is in fact doing worse than last time. In 1992, the Tories came in third on 13 per cent, but the Liberal Democrats were named by 28 per cent, only just behind the 31 per cent naming Neil Kinnock's second and more stilted Labour campaign.

This time, much of the media's attention has been taken by Mr Blair's uncertain start to the campaign. He was reported to be defensive in his Panorama interview with David Dimbleby and the "wobble" over the late change to party policy on privatisation attracted much coverage. Mr Ashdown is generally held to have had a good campaign.

When given airtime, he is said to come across exceptionally well and Liberal Democrat policies are popular when people know about them.

Mr Major also impressed journalists with his decision to turn disunity over Europe into an impassioned plea to his party and the country to trust him to negotiate with Britain's European partners.

The other big difference between now and five years ago is that in 1992 only 26 per cent of those interviewed replied "none of them" or "don't know", against 37 per cent now.

Once again, it seems, the don't knows have it.