Tories slump to 24.5% and third place

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THE SLUMP in Tory fortunes continues with an opinion poll putting the Liberal Democrats ahead of the Conservative Party, and giving John Major the lowest rating since Gallup began polling in 1938, writes Anthony Bevins.

The survey will further batter Tory morale in the run-up to this month's Christchurch by-election, and could strengthen the hand of backbench rebels mustering support for a last-ditch revolt against the Maastricht treaty - and for a referendum - in Commons and Lords votes scheduled for 26 July.

The poll, for today's Daily Telegraph, puts Labour on 43 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 26.5 per cent, and the Tories on 24.5 per cent. This is a half percentage point fall in Tory support since last month, a 3.5 point rise for the Liberal Democrats and a 6 point drop for Labour.

While the Conservatives sank to an even more miserable 23 per cent in a Gallup poll after the launch of the Liberal-Social Democrat Alliance in 1981, during the last Conservative recession, and were again overtaken in 1986, their current problems appear to run deep.

Gallup said that only 12 per cent approved of the Government's record, compared with an 18 per cent low for Margaret Thatcher in 1981, and a 17 per cent low for Harold Wilson in 1968, and a third of Conservative voters have lost confidence in Mr Major.