Ed Miliband tries to steady his ship as polls show first Tory lead in two years

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Ed Miliband tried to steady Labour nerves today after the Conservatives moved ahead of the party in the opinion polls for the first time in more than two years.

As Labour MPs expressed fears that the economic recovery is boosting the Tories’ standing, Lord Jones, the Trade Minister in the previous Labour Government, added to criticism that Mr Miliband is pursuing an “anti-big business agenda”. He told the BBC: “The Labour leadership is one of the least business-friendly leaders of political parties I’ve seen for years”.

The gloomy poll findings overshadowed Labour’s attempt to put the National Health Service at the top of the political agenda ahead of the European and local elections a week on Thursday. If Labour does badly, Mr Miliband will face demands from some of his MPs to match David Cameron’s offer of an in/out referendum on Europe.

Miliband allies said the poll setback had been expected, saying it was a consequence of the rise of Ukip. There was some evidence in the most recent two surveys, which both gave the Tories   two-point lead over Labour, that Nigel Farage’s party is attracting working class voters at Labour’s expense.

Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton, said the council results would be a key test next week. “If these confirm there is a trend away from where the Labour Party has been over the last two years there will be increased demand for debate on our policies and how well we are communicating with the public,” he said.

The polls make a gloomy backdrop for the first talks between Mr Miliband and David Axelrod, the American political strategist who helped Barack Obama win two presidential elections, and who has been hired by Labour for next year’s general election. He arrives in London tomorrow for two days of meetings with Labour officials and the Shadow Cabinet.

Mr Miliband said: “Polls go up and down. I've seen that over three and a half years in this job.” Ruling out a change of strategy, he argued that he was “more personally competent” than Mr Cameron. “The most important thing as a prime minister is to understand what people think and what you can do about it and to show the difference you can make to their lives,” he said.

Tomorrow, Labour will screen a party election broadcast filmed when Mr Miliband spent two days talking to staff and patients at Watford General Hospital. He reiterates his “promise” that people would get a GP appointment within 48 hours if Labour regains power next year and warns that it is “a crunch moment” for the NHS. “I dread to think what another five years of the Conservatives would mean for the NHS,” he says.