NOP/Independent Poll: Tories lose trust over economy and crime: Growing signs of economic recovery stubbornly fail to translate into 'feel good' factor the Government needs

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THE TORIES have forfeited the trust of the electorate on three of their strongest suits, the economy, taxation and law and order. That is one of the main findings of an NOP poll for the Independent which shows that the party's ratings are still 22 per cent behind Labour.

Although Labour has slipped two points since NOP polled for the Independent on Sunday on 3 April, the Tories are still becalmed at 26 per cent.

It is difficult to use national opinion polls to predict the result of local and European elections, where low and variable turnout is a bigger factor than in national elections. The Tories are likely to do better, for example, in the local elections than their current poll rating would suggest, and they can reasonably expect to gain at least some of the 356 seats they lost then partly because of the poll tax.

More than half of voters, the Tories will be pleased to hear, say they intend to vote in the council elections on local issues; but 35 per cent say they will vote on national ones. And the depth of the Tories' overall plight is still starkly underlined by the fact that in the local elections in 1990 the Tories had a 32 per cent share of the popular vote; in the European elections in 1989 they had 34.7 per cent.

What is more, the growing signs of economic recovery have still stubbornly failed to translate into the 'feel good' factor the Tories badly need at the outset of the mid- term electoral season - almost certainly because of the impact of higher taxes.

Only 16 per cent of electors expect their personal standard of living to get better - the same as in November. Forty-two per cent expect it to stay the same and 37 per cent to get worse. this is fractionally better than in November 1993 - but the change is insignificant.

Asked whether they trusted the Tories to make the right decisions on the economy, only 22 per cent said yes, and 69 per cent said no. This is the party that got a healthy 49 per cent economic competence rating just before the 1992 election.

Once again, the key consolation of the findings for John Major is that they do not suggest that a change of prime minister would necessarily transform the party's fortunes. But they once again underline that Michael Heseltine is the most popular of potential Tory leaders - including Mr Major.

Asked who would make the best prime minister, 16 per cent said Michael Heseltine and only 11 per cent said John Major. But Mr Major comes out comfortably ahead of both Kenneth Clarke (5 per cent) and Michael Portillo (3 per cent). Easily the most popular alternative - at the moment - of those put to the people surveyed in our poll was John Smith, leader of the Labour Party, with 26 per cent.

When the same 'trust' question is applied to taxation and crime as to the economy, Mr Major's administration fares every bit as badly.

On tax a mere 18 per cent said they trusted the Tories to make the right decisions, compared with 76 per cent who did not.

Only 28 per cent answered positively to the same question on crime - compared with 64 per cent who did not.

The poll also suggests that Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, may have made a big impact. On crime - traditionally a weak Labour issue - more electors

(44 per cent) now trust Labour to make the right decisions than do not (39 per cent).

But it should not get complacent. On the economy and taxation, despite the success of Gordon Brown's tax campaign, the reverse is still true. Only 34 per cent trust Labour to make the right decisions about taxes compared with 51 per cent who do not. And on the economy in general the equivalent figures are 37 per cent yes and 47 per cent no.

NOP interviewed 1,062 adults in 52 constituencies across Britain on 20 April.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Which of these people would make the best Prime minister? ----------------------------------------------------------------- Name Per cent JOHN MAJOR. . . . . . . . . . . .11 MICHAEL HESELTINE. . . . . . . . 16 MICHAEL PORTILLO. . . . . . . . . 3 KENNETH CLARKE. . . . . . . . . . 5 JOHN SMITH. . . . . . . . . . . .26 NONE OF THESE. . . . . . . . . . 25 DON'T KNOW. . . . . . . . . . . .13 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Prepared by TIS/NOP Social & Political for The Independent -----------------------------------------------------------------