David Cameron's rejuvenated Conservative Party has opened a seven-point lead over Labour, according to The Independent's latest "poll of polls".
As the Tory leader completed six months in his post, the analysis of the opinion surveys taken in May put his party on 39 per cent (up four points on April), Labour 32 per cent (down one point) and the Liberal Democrats on 19 (down two points).
The figures will deepen the gloom among Labour MPs as they contemplate how long Tony Blair should carry on as Prime Minister. They suggest that the "Cameron effect" has revived the Tories' fortunes because the party has swapped places with Labour in the polls since he took over as leader in December. In the previous month, Labour had a six-point advantage.
"It looks as though we may have entered a new political era," said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiled the weighted average of the polls conducted by ICM, MORI, Populus and YouGov.
All eight surveys taken since Labour's "Black Wednesday" in April have put the Tories three or more points ahead of Labour. It is the first time since the Conservatives' own "Black Wednesday" in 1992 that there has been such a long run of polls showing them ahead of Labour. The previous longest run was at the time of the 2000 fuel crisis.
Professor Curtice said: "While individual polls have sometimes put the Conservatives ahead in recent years, this is the first time that all the pollsters have agreed that the Tories are in the lead."
If a general election were held now, on a uniform swing the "poll of polls" would give the Tories 295 seats, Labour 276, the Liberal Democrats 43 and others 32. That would leave Labour short of an overall majority even if it could secure the support of the Liberal Democrats.
When the new constituency boundaries on which the next election will be fought are taken into account, the Tories would have some 300 seats, still 26 short of a majority but capable of forming a majority with the Liberal Democrats.
Professor Curtice said the polls suggest Labour was on the slide before Mr Blair's Black Wednesday, when his government was on the ropes over the release of foreign prisoners, NHS job cuts and John Prescott's affair with his former diary secretary Tracey Temple.
"Rather than the result of one major 'shock', it appears more likely that the Government has suffered from the persistent bad headlines of the past two to three months, and that Black Wednesday simply made a bad situation worse," he said. It would be unwise, he added, for Labour to assume its problems stemmed from Mr Prescott's behaviour, despite some evidence that it has upset women voters.
Professor Curtice said: "The challenge for the Conservatives now will be to maintain their lead through June and into the summer, once the bloom of the local elections has passed. If they do, then Labour's 14-year-long dominance of the electoral scene will clearly finally be over."
Yesterday Mr Cameron made a further invasion into Labour's natural territory of public services, when he urged his own party to abandon "knee-jerk" hostility to the public sector and admit that private companies did not have a monopoly on good service.
In a speech to the National Consumer Council, he took a swipe at banks, insurance companies and utilities for poor customer care, insisting they often had lessons to learn from the public sector about how to treat people using their services.
Accusing ministers of "scapegoating" civil servants to evade responsibility for their policy failings, Mr Cameron set out his belief in the "high ideal" of public service. He admitted his party had sent out a negative message to public-sector workers, giving them the impression that it regarded them all as lazy and inefficient.
He insisted that he did not see them that way and rejected the "automatic and lazy assumption" that the private sector would always do things better than the public services. He urged his party: "Let's stop the knee-jerk attacks on public-sector workers and focus on what really matters: improving the quality of service in our lives, whoever is providing it."