Almost half of the voters who supported the Conservatives in 1992 now think the "only hope for the Conservative Party is a period in opposition".
The survey, conducted by Opinion Research Business (ORB) for the stockbrokers James Capel, also reveals a widespread fear of the party moving to the right.
ORB's survey is the latest in a series of panel studies, in which the same former Tory voters are reinterviewed every three months. The poll was conducted two weeks ago, after the Conservatives had succeeded in putting Labour on the defensive over Harriet Harman's choice of school for her son. Yet the poll contains no sign of any improvement in Tory fortunes.
Just 61 per cent of people who voted Conservative last time say they would vote Tory now - a small drop from 64 per cent in late October. Fourteen per cent say they would switch to Labour (the same as three months ago) and 10 per cent would vote Liberal Democrat (up one point). Fourteen per cent are either "don't knows", or say they would not vote.
More than half of ORB's panel (57 per cent) think Labour will win the next election; only 28 per cent expect a fifth Tory victory.
Fewer than half the sample seem to dread defeat. As many as 47 per cent agree that "the only hope for the Conservative Party is a period in opposition"; only 43 per cent disagree.
The poll also finds widespread support for the view expressed by Baroness Thatcher last month that "the middle classes no longer have the incentives and opportunities they expect from a Conservative government". Sixty-three per cent agree, while only 27 per cent disagree.
However, the poll offers no comfort to those Thatcherites who believe the party should now shift to the right. ORB tested the reputations of 11 members of the Cabinet and asked whether they were "too far to the right" or "too far to the left". In every case - including Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine - more people said they were too right-wing rather than too left-wing.
Not surprisingly, Michael Portillo easily tops the list: 57 per cent of people who voted Tory at the last election say he is "too far to the right"; just 12 per cent say he is "too far to the left". However, the fact that Mr Heseltine has a higher "right-wing" rating than Michael Howard, and that Mr Clarke's rating is similar to Peter Lilley's, may indicate that the Tories' problems are as much to do with their overall image, as with the reputation of individual ministers.
When ORB tested specific policies, a more complex left-right pattern emerged. Eight out of 10 panel members agree "prison sentences should be longer and prison regimes should be harsher"; and seven out of 10 agree that "the single European currency is a major threat to Britain's national independence". However, the 39 per cent who want to reduce social-security payments to the unemployed and to unmarried mothers are outnumbered by the 50 per cent who disagree.
The poll offers two signs of hope for John Major. The first is that panel members are becoming steadily more optimistic about their financial prospects. Twenty-nine per cent expect to become better off over the next 12 months, while 17 per cent expect to become worse off: a net score of plus 12. This compares with a net score of plus 3 in October, before the Budget, and minus seven last July. Tory strategists hope that this rising optimism will help the party, in time, persuade more ex-Tories to return to the fold.
Second, the poll finds that Emma Nicholson's defection to the Liberal Democrats seems to have done the Tories little lasting damage. Two out of three panel members think she acted purely out of personal ambition; as many as 84 per cent say it has made no difference to their party loyalties.
Of the other 16 per cent, those who say her defection has made them more likely to vote Tory (10 per cent) outnumber those who say it has made them less likely (6 per cent).
Q. For each of the following cabinet ministers, could you tell me whether you find their views are too far to the right or too far to the left?
Name Too right Too left
Michael Portillo 57 12
Virginia Bottomley 39 15
Michael Heseltine 37 17
Michael Howard 31 12
Kenneth Clarke 29 21
Peter Lilley 27 16
Malcolm Rifkind 22 11
Gillian Shephard 21 16
Patrick Mayhew 20 11
Brian Mawhinne 18 13
Stephen Dorrell 13 11Reuse content