Labour has slashed the Conservatives' opinion poll lead – raising the prospect of a hung parliament after the next election – because of a surge in support for Gordon Brown.
A ComRes poll for The Independent today shows the Tory advantage has slumped from 19 to eight points in just two months. Such a "Brown bounce" connected to the recent economic turmoil would be enough to deprive David Cameron of an overall majority in a general election. Two months ago, the Tory leader was on course for a landslide victory.
The poll comes as Mr Brown pledged to spend Britain's way out of recession and admitted he would have to tear up his "golden rule" to pour money into the beleaguered economy. He made it clear he believed borrowing was the "responsible" way to kickstart the economy, despite Opposition anger at the fast-rising levels of borrowing, which is expected to soar well beyond the £37.6bn borrowed by the Treasury in the first six months of the year. Some economists believe it could reach close to £100bn by the end of the financial year.
Speaking to business leaders, Mr Brown insisted Britain had to make the necessary long-term investments to benefit from the "new global age".
"As economic activity rises, as tax revenues recover, then you would want borrowing to be a lower share of your national income," he said. "But the responsible course at the moment is to use the investments that are necessary, and to continue them, and to help people through very difficult times. I think that's a very fundamental part of what we are doing."
He also conceded that further rises in unemployment were inevitable. "I can't promise people that we will keep them in their last job if it becomes economically redundant," he said. "But we can promise people that we will help them into their next job."
This month's figures showed a sharp jump in unemployment to 1.79 million, with predictions that the rate could rise to two million by Christmas. Mr Brown's spokesman said: "These are going to be tough and challenging times for the economy ... but we stand ready to do whatever is necessary to help people."
The Prime Minister has taken a central role in leading global efforts to tackle the credit crunch in the four weeks since the last ComRes survey for The Independent, which put the Tories 12 points ahead. The boost to support for the Government will reinforce fears among some senior Tories that Mr Cameron is being marginalised during the international financial turmoil.
Today's survey puts the Conservatives on 39 per cent, down two points on last month's poll, with Labour on 31 per cent, up two points. The Liberal Democrats are down two points on 16 per cent. It found there had been a shift towards Labour among male voters and that Tory support was dropping among the better-off AB social groups.
Because of the way the electoral geography is stacked against the Tories, a lead of eight points would leave the party eight seats short of an overall majority in an election. By contrast, last month's survey – conducted before the £500bn bailout of Britain's high-street banks – projected a 54-seat general election victory for Mr Cameron. Two months ago, ComRes put the Tories in a 19-point lead, enough to win a crushing 212-seat majority. Although Labour has built momentum since the summer, the Tories hope their double-digit lead in the polls will be restored once the recession bites across Britain and plan a concerted drive over the next week to turn the spotlight on Mr Brown's handling of the economy.
ComRes did uncover some comforting findings for the Conservatives. Their supporters are the most loyal, with 68 per cent saying they would be "absolutely certain" to vote, compared with 65 per cent of Liberal Democrats and 55 per cent of Labour backers.
Today, union members will stage a demonstration at Westminster to demand the Government's £500bn bank bailout be used to protect jobs. The Unite union, Britain's largest, will call for jobs and pensions among finance workers to be protected above the salaries of senior managers.
George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, criticised the weakness of the public finances. He told the BBC: "Gordon Brown is being forced into this borrowing. He presents it as a strategy but it is actually a consequence of his great failure that borrowing is already out of control before we even get into the worst of the economic circumstances that we are in."
ComRes, a member of the British Polling Council, telephoned 1,001 adults on 24-26 October. Data was weighted by past vote recall.
In the balance Previous hung parliaments
The last time an election produced a hung parliament was when the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath went to the country in February 1974.
Although the Tories received the most votes, Labour, under Harold Wilson, pictured, won 301 seats to the Conservatives' 297.
Heath tried to woo the Liberals, who had 14 MPs, in an attempt to form a governing coalition. After failing, he resigned and Wilson took over as the head of a minority administration.
Wilson went again to the country eight months later, scraping home with an overall majority of three.
Since then there have been two occasions when hung parliaments developed after small government majorities vanished because of deaths and defections – in 1978 (Labour under James Callaghan) and 1996 (the Conservatives under John Major).