Labour sure to win, say opinion leaders

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The outcome of the next election is a foregone conclusion, according to a poll for The Independent of opinion leaders, three-quarters of whom expect Labour to be in government in 2000.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, is far and away the most popular choice as prime minister for the new millennium; he is preferred by 37 of our sample of 100 company directors, senior civil servants, media editors, politicians and trade union leaders.

Of the sample, 76 expect a Labour government, and all but one expect Mr Blair to be leading it (the other predicts Margaret Beckett, the former deputy Labour leader, as prime minister). Only 15 think the Tories will be in power, and only five of that 15 expect John Major to be in Downing Street in 2000. John Redwood, last year's Tory leadership challenger, is tipped by two people, with one each supporting Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, and Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, who would have to hold his ultra-marginal Stirling seat.

One other member of the panel predicts that Mr Blair will be prime minister - at the head of a Tory government. The rest do not know.

Asked who they would "most like to see" as prime minister in 2000, Mr Major is a poor runner-up to Mr Blair, with nine votes. Mr Clarke and Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, have four votes each, followed by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, with three. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, Mr Forsyth, Mr Redwood and Chris Smith, Labour's health spokesman, all have two votes.

Most of our sample, 53 of those polled, expect Labour to be more divided by 2000 - more than the 41 who expect the Tories to be more divided.

The poll, by Opinion Leader Research, is designed to reflect the views of people who have the power to influence public opinion. It reveals dramatic changes in the fortunes of Britain's politicians since a similar survey three years ago.

The death of the Labour leader John Smith has transformed the political landscape and, partly as a result of his rebuilding the party, Labour's chances of winning the next election have vastly improved.

Meanwhile, the prospects of Mr Clarke and Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, have faded, while those of Mr Major - then given almost no chance of surviving as Tory leader - have slightly revived. The 1993 poll was one of the first pointers to Mr Blair as most likely to succeed Mr Smith.

The prospect of a Labour victory at the next election is supported by The Independent's analysis of polls of the public since the beginning of the year. The average Labour lead has fallen from 28 points in January to 22 points last month. This represented little change from 21 points in July and 22 points in June. From March to May the average Labour lead was steady at 25 points.

All the polling companies have changed their methods since their failure to gauge opinion accurately at the last election. But Labour's average rating in the four main polls is still 51 per cent - an unprecedented figure this close to an election, which will be held, at most, in eight months' time. The Tories are on 29 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 14.5 per cent.