Labour is closing the gap with the Conservatives amid public doubts about David Cameron's economic policies, according to a poll for The Independent.
The ComRes survey found that 82 per cent of people want Mr Cameron to be clearer about what he would do on the economy – including 82 per cent of Tory supporters. Only 24 per cent believe the recession would have ended sooner if the Tories had been in power, while 69 per cent do not.
The findings came as the Tories tried to fight off Labour claims that Mr Cameron had made a U-turn over when cuts in public spending should start. The Tory leader has denied that his party would make "swingeing cuts" in the 2010-11 financial year after official figures last week showed only a fragile economic recovery. George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, who has promised early cuts, will seek to end the apparent confusion in a keynote speech today. According to ComRes, the Tories' nine-point lead over Labour has dropped to seven points in the past month. It puts the Tories on 38 per cent (unchanged since last month), Labour on 31 per cent (up two points), the Liberal Democrats on 19 per cent (no change) and other parties on 12 per cent (down two). If repeated at a general election, these figures would leave Mr Cameron 24 seats short of an overall majority in a hung parliament.
The Tories are 16 points ahead among men but trail Labour by four points among women. There are signs that Labour is winning back its traditional supporters. It has a lead of 44 to 33 per cent among the bottom DE social group.
Some of the ComRes findings suggest that the Tories are not making as much progress as they would wish on the key economic battleground.
However, Mr Cameron is ahead of Gordon Brown on the issue. Only 40 per cent of people say they trust Mr Brown more than Mr Cameron to help Britain's economy to recover, while 52 per cent do not.
And most voters seem in no mood to give Labour credit for the tentative recovery. Only 37 per cent believe Labour can take the credit for getting Britain out of recession, while 59 per cent disagree.
Yesterday Lord Mandelson attacked the "confusion and disarray" over the Tories' economic strategy. He described Mr Cameron as "bobbing around like a cork in water" and portrayed him and Mr Osborne as a "Laurel and Hardy duo". The Business Secretary said: "David Cameron should level with the British people. If he refuses to be clear, if he will not be honest, people will conclude that – for electoral reasons – he is hiding the truth and that the Conservatives' proposed cuts will indeed eat into the recovery and throw Britain back into recession and lost jobs."
Lord Mandelson said the Government had "every confidence" the country would not slip back into negative growth but Yvette Cooper, the Work and Pensions Secretary, admitted that unemployment was likely to start rising again before the summer.
The Tories hit back, denying that they had ever endorsed big cuts in 2010-11 and insisting that Labour was "in chaos" on the issue. A Tory spokesman said: "Treasury ministers say there will be 'extremely painful' cuts under Labour, but Gordon Brown says spending will carry on rising. Treasury figures already imply 17 per cent cuts in non-protected departments under Labour, but Gordon Brown keeps adding new protected areas without saying where the money is coming from."
He added: "Peter Mandelson couldn't decide whether to attack the Conservatives for cutting too soon or for cutting too little. Perhaps he should spend more time filling the vacuum at the heart of Labour policy."
Mr Osborne will try to steady Tory nerves today amid hotly denied, but potentially dangerous, claims of tension between him and Mr Cameron over how quickly and deeply an incoming Tory government would reduce the £178bn deficit.
In a speech on where the future jobs will come from, Mr Osborne will emphasise his party's commitment to "green growth". He will announce that Lord Stern of Brentford, author of a landmark study on climate change, will advise a Tory working group on the creation of Britain's first Green Investment Bank. Business figures, including Bob Wigley, chairman of Yell Group, will also join the panel.
The shadow Chancellor will argue that Labour's approach to supporting green technology has failed, and as a result the UK is lagging far behind other countries in the £1 trillion market for green goods and services.
ComRes telephoned 1,001 British adults between 29 and 31 January 2010. Data were weighted by past vote recall. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables at www.comres.co.uk