Cameron in trouble as voters shy away from blaming Labour

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The Government appears to have weathered the storm over Northern Rock despite fears that the crisis would tarnish Gordon Brown's reputation for economic competence and stability.

On Monday, alarm bells rang increasingly loudly in 10 and 11 Downing Street, culminating in the unprecedented guarantee by the Government to Northern Rock depositors. Yesterday the political as well the financial markets were much calmer.

Relieved ministers took comfort from two opinion polls published today. A Populus survey for The Times taken after the Government's announcement suggests that most people do not blame Mr Brown or the Government for the affair, are confident about their bank and building society deposits and optimistic about the economy and house prices.

Asked who they blame "a great deal" for the crisis, 42 per cent cited problems in the American mortgage market, 29 per cent the management of Northern Rock, 20 per cent the Government, 15 per cent the Bank of England and other City institutions and 10 per cent other banks and financial institutions.

Labour's lead over the Tories on the economy has risen since a previous Populus poll 10 days ago – perhaps a sign that people "hold on to nurse for fear of something worse" in a crisis. Fifty-six per cent of people would trust the team of Mr Brown and the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, if the economy hits problems in the months or years ahead, while only 18 per cent trust David Cameron and his shadow Chancellor, George Osborne.

An ICM poll for The Guardian gives Labour (40 per cent) an eight-point lead over the Tories (32 per cent) with the Liberal Democrats on 20 per cent. It suggests that Mr Cameron is the least popular of the three main party leaders.

Only 37 per cent of all voters are satisfied with the way the Tory leader is doing his job, while 45 per cent are dissatisfied. Some 41 per cent are unhappy with the performance of Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, while 36 per cent are happy. In contrast, 55 per cent are satisfied with Mr Brown's, while 23 per cent are not.

As the Northern Rock crisis eased, Mr Brown made his first public comments on the affair yesterday. He said: "The decisive action we have taken means that the deposits of Northern Rock customers are guaranteed. It is because of the strength of our economy that we have been able to take these measures."

The Populus survey will reinforce the impression that the Government acted in the nick of time to prevent the problem spreading to the entire financial system, which would have caused a political crisis. But for Labour MPs in marginal seats, the shave was much too close for comfort.

Opposition parties insist the Government's handling of the affair was anything but decisive, saying it should have intervened earlier and pointing to conflicting messages from Mr Darling on Monday as he desperately tried to reassure Northern Rock customers.

Mr Osborne, who met the Bank of England governor, Mervyn King, yesterday, said: "I find it extraordinary that Gordon Brown should describe the Government's handling of the crisis as decisive. He and the Chancellor have allowed the first bank run in living memory to take place and spent four days in indecision and confusion. We may have to live with the consequences for many years to come."

The Tories and Liberal Democrats, who have been warning about the dangers of Britain's £1.3 trillion debt mountain for years, believe Mr Brown may not be out of the woods yet. They suspect that, when the dust settles, some voters will look differently on his economic record, saying he cannot escape responsibility for the "debt culture".

Mr Brown wants to learn lessons from the affair. Downing Street made clear yesterday that a review of the way such problems are handled will not be far off. Mr Brown does not want there to be a "next time".

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