Labour would enjoy a dramatic rise in support if Gordon Brown rather than Tony Blair led the party into the general election, according to a poll by NOP for The Independent.
The survey suggests that the Chancellor would increase Labour's ratings by a third - winning over people who are undecided or who would back the Liberal Democrats if Mr Blair remains his party's leader.
The findings will reignite the debate about whether Mr Blair should have quit last year. A book serialised at the weekend claimed that a promise to Mr Brown to stand down because he had become a liability after the Iraq war was broken.
NOP found that, under Mr Blair, Labour could rely on the definite support of 23 per cent of the electorate, with the Tories on 18 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 12 per cent. Some 26 per cent were "don't knows".
When people were asked how they would vote if Mr Brown were Labour leader, the party's support rose to 31 per cent, the Tories remained on 18 per cent and the Liberal Democrats dropped two points to 10 per cent. "Don't knows" fell to 20 per cent.
Labour officials are worried that many of the party's natural supporters are "on strike" after becoming disillusioned with Mr Blair. They fear a low Labour turnout at the election, expected in May, could allow the Tories to run Labour close because their supporters are more likely to vote than Labour's.
The findings suggest there would be little mileage in the Tories portraying Mr Blair as a "lame duck" leader at the election. They have threatened to campaign on a "vote Blair, get Brown" slogan but such a strategy might backfire because the Chancellor is more popular than the Prime Minister.
Despite concerted efforts by Mr Blair and Mr Brown to strike a truce, Labour MPs returned to Westminster from their Christmas break yesterday alarmed by the most serious infighting between them since Mr Blair became party leader in 1994.
The divisions do not appear to have harmed Labour's standing yet. NOP's headline figures, with the "don't knows" excluded, show Labour retaining the nine-point lead it enjoyed in The Independent's previous NOP survey in November. Labour remains on 39 per cent, the Tories are unchanged on 30 per cent and the Liberal Democrats up one point to 21 per cent.
The survey was taken between Friday and Sunday, when the Blair-Brown tensions dominated the news. Labour MPs fear the party will pay a heavy price if the rift is not healed quickly. Last night, the Prime Minister sought to allay concerns by making a plea for unity when he addressed a weekly meeting at Westminster -with Mr Brown alongside him in a deliberate show of support.
Mr Blair's decision not to return early from his holiday after the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster enjoys the support of the British public - but only just. While 51 per cent believe he should not have come back early, a sizeable minority (40 per cent) think he should have. Labour is deeply worried that many of its traditional backers will abstain at the election and today's survey suggests the Chancellor would be in a strong position to win them back. It shows he would enhance Labour's support across all social classes and age groups.
Although Mr Blair changed his mind about standing down last year and is determined to lead Labour into the election, the findings will encourage supporters of Mr Brown. They will reinforce the hope the Chancellor would enjoy a "honeymoon" with the voters if he succeeded Mr Blair during the next Parliament, which would put in him a strong position to win the following general election.
* NOP interviewed 951 people across Britain between 7 and 9 January. Data was weighted to be representative of the population by age, sex and region.
23%: Would vote Labour under Tony Blair
31%: Would vote Labour under Gordon BrownReuse content