Majority believe PM lied over war - but should stay in office

Throughout the row with the BBC over Andrew Gilligan's now infamous broadcast, Downing Street has been determined to deny one crucial charge - that it lied to the nation about Iraq. But, as far as public opinion is concerned, its efforts have failed. That is the main message from a poll conducted exclusively for The Independent by NOP.

Given what they now know, no fewer than 59 per cent believe Tony Blair lied to the nation. Only 29 per cent disagree. While previous polls have reported a majority believe the Prime Minister "misled'' the nation, this is the first poll to suggest that most people believe he lied.

Moreover, this perception is far from consigned to middle class liberals. At 60 per cent, the proportion of those in the bottom DE social group who said the Prime Minister lied matches exactly the 60 per cent figure in the top AB group.

It appears that in deciding to take on the BBC over Andrew Gilligan's broadcast, the supposed master of political spin, Alastair Campbell, served his master ill. The evidence that has been presented to the Hutton Inquiry has, it seems, simply given credence in the public's mind to the very charge that Downing Street was so keen to deny.

At the same time, however, our poll also suggests the charge of lying was not so serious in the public mind as the Prime Minister feared. Tony Blair has claimed that if the charge of lying were proven he would have to resign. The public, it seems, thinks otherwise.

Just 41 per cent say their trust in the Prime Minister has been eroded to such an extent that they think Mr Blair should resign. As many as 52 per cent say he should remain in office. This finding will doubtless be of considerable comfort to the Prime Minister after an ICM poll at the weekend reported 48 per cent believed he should stand down and only 41 per cent reckon he should stay. However, whether those who think he should remain in office will still be inclined to believe what he says in future remains to be seen. As Norman Lamont, the former chancellor, once so cruelly reminded John Major, being in office is not necessarily the same as being in power.

The Prime Minister will, however, heave an even bigger sigh of relief from our poll's finding on vote intentions. His authority with fellow Labour MPs at least rests on their belief he will help them win their seats again. And, at 38 per cent, Labour enjoy no less than a nine point lead over the Conservatives who, on 29 per cent have just a two point lead over the Liberal Democrats. That contrasts sharply with two polls published at the weekend which both put all three parties neck-and-neck.

Those weekend polls were taken not only in the immediate wake of the Brent by-election but also just as the Liberal Democrats conference was drawing to a close.

It looks as though the resulting Liberal Democrats bubble may have begun to burst with Labour's more doubtful supporters returning to the fold for the time being.

Even so, at 27 per cent, the Liberal Democrats are still well up on the 20 per cent or so ratings that the party enjoyed before Brent. Doubtless, Charles Kennedy will be hoping anxiously that some of his party's post-Brent gain will prove to be permanent.

It looks as though, for all the Prime Minister's troubles, it is Iain Duncan Smith who still has most reason to be concerned about his political future. The incumbent government is in the midst of its biggest political crisis to date. Yet no recent poll has given the Conservatives more than a third of the vote they won at the previous election. And, in our poll, they are four points below that figure, putting the party below 30 per cent for the first time since spring. Such a consistently low record would seem little short of disastrous.

There is more relief for the Prime Minister. Labour's rating increases by just 1 per cent when people are asked how they would vote if Gordon Brown were leader. That is in contrast with a recent MORI poll suggesting a Brown leadership would add five points to its tally.

So, even though Mr Blair is thought to have lied over Iraq, it appears he is not dragging his party down. Supporters of the Chancellor might note their man looked capable of carrying the torch forward should Tony Blair decide at some point to call it a day.

NOP interviewed a representative sample of 963 people between September 26 and 28.

The writer is professor of Politics at Strathclyde University.

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