A new leader - but no sign of a bounce for the Tories

There is no "bounce" yet evident in the public's voting intention for the Conservative Party after the Tory MPs' choice of Michael Howard as the leader of the party.

Taking the voting intention expressed last week, before the deposing of Iain Duncan Smith, and this weekend, when it became evident that there would be only one candidate for the Tory leadership going forward, the Conservatives are down by three percentage points. Labour remains at 38 per cent.

This finding, reported exclusively in The Independent, will come as a shock to the Conservatives, who had expected a bounce similar to the nine-point lift in support for the Labour Party when Neil Kinnock replaced Michael Foot as leader.

Yet twice as many people agree that Mr Howard is ready to be prime minister (30 per cent) as thought Mr Duncan Smith was in September (16 per cent), according to a MORI poll for the Financial Times. Now 22 per cent say they are unsure about whether or not Mr Howard is ready to be prime minister, while only 17 per cent had not made up their mind about Mr Duncan Smith. Eyes will be on the answers to that same question in a month's time, as when John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher. His modest bounce was only three points in the first month, but five in the second, aided by a fair wind as a result of the impending Gulf War.

Mr Howard's weakness, even against the pre-coup poll ratings of Mr Duncan Smith, is with the third of the electorate between the ages of 35 and 55, which is down five points. He also has a problem with the C1/C2 half of the country, those in white-collar jobs (down four points) and in the skilled working classes (down five points).

Mr Howard also polls more weakly in the Midlands and in the North.

The slogan "divided parties don't win elections" is well-known in British politics, and at this early moment in the life of the "New Tory Party", Mr Howard has rung the right bells in saying that he will unite it. If he can deliver on this promise he will go a long way to healing the open wounds that they have suffered for more than a decade.

In September 1992, at the time of Black Wednesday, which began the long period of Tory "flat-lining" at around 30 per cent, a third of the electorate described the Conservative Party as divided.

"Divided" as an appropriate attribute for the Tories hit 50 per cent in July 1993, and again in September 1997 as they wrangled over Europe and many other things.

The lowest divided rating over the period was in the run-up to the election in 2001, when they were at 30 per cent. A fat lot of good that did them: they increased their number of MPs in the election that followed by a single seat.

Under Mr Duncan Smith, 34 per cent was the measure of the public's view of the Tories as a divided party in September this year. Labour then stood at 31 per cent, while over the past decade Labour's rating for being seen to be a divided party averaged under 20 per cent and was as low as 8 per cent in September 1997 and 11 per cent in the 2001 election.

Thus if Mr Howard can unite the Conservative Party, and he has made a good start on it, he will begin to improve its image.

He needs to take on board that it is image, even more than issues, that will determine the next election.

In the mind of the electorate, voting decisions on the margin are made up of roughly 60 per cent image, and only 40 per cent the party's position on issues.

Bottom line: a big mountain still ahead. At the last election, Labour's majority in the House of Commons was 161. On these results they would be back with another, their third, landslide of more than 100.

Bob Worcester is the chairman of MORI

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