Gordon Brown is leading Labour to its worst electoral defeat since the 1930s, according to a new "poll of polls" for The Independent. On current levels of support, Labour would lose almost half its MPs at the next election and David Cameron would become Prime Minister with an overwhelming majority.
The backlash against Labour has left the party with the support of just 27 per cent of voters, the weighted average of last month's polls for The Independent shows. The Tories are on 44 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats on 18 per cent. If that were reflected in a general election, the Tories would have 391 MPs and Labour would be banished to its heartlands with just 195 MPs. The cabinet ministers Alistair Darling, Jacqui Smith, Ruth Kelly and John Hutton would be among the prominent figures to lose their seats. The last time so few Labour candidates were returned in an election was in 1935.
Mr Cameron's majority would be 132 – close to Tony Blair's margin of victory in the 1997 and 2001 Labour landslides – almost certainly enough to assure a decade of Conservative government.
The Liberal Democrats, under threat from a reviving Tory party in dozens of seats, would fall from 63 to 33 seats, piling pressure on Nick Clegg's leadership.
The figures confirm the trend of the past three months, during which Labour has been defeated in two by-elections in previously safe seats and lost hundreds of councillors in the local elections. They provide further ammunition for Labour rebels planning an attempt to remove Mr Brown from office next month.
The Prime Minister's popularity ratings continue to plumb the depths, with Michael Foot the only recent Labour leader to be as unpopular. Critics will argue that public opinion of his abilities is so low that he cannot recover.
As Mr Brown plans an economic recovery package, the research demonstrates that the Tories consistently outpoll Labour for perceived economic competence.
But in a further blow for Mr Brown, it was reported last night that David Miliband had lined up the former cabinet minister Alan Milburn to be Chancellor of the Exchequer if he takes over from Gordon Brown as Prime Minister. The Daily Telegraph claimed the Foreign Secretary had been holding talks with the former health secretary about a senior role in a Miliband government.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiled the "poll of polls", said: "Claims by Labour that Mr Brown is best able to steer the country through the economic crisis are simply not believed. Labour's reputation for economic competence has been torn to shreds." Professor Curtice said the Tories were viewed as a government-in-waiting for the first time in 10 years. "Labour now finds itself facing a serious and respected opposition for the first time."
Less than 20 per cent of voters think Mr Brown is doing a good job and about the same number are dissatisfied with Labour's record. Levels of disillusionment with the Government are as high as they were with Margaret Thatcher's administration shortly before she was deposed in 1990. By contrast around half are expressing approval of the Tory leader. Professor Curtice said: "Mr Cameron remains relatively popular, and is thought more capable than Brown, but not all the stardust has transferred to his party."
Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, admitted yesterday Labour had lost the "conviction and zeal" that helped it win three elections under Tony Blair. But he insisted Mr Brown was the right person to lead the party.
The party's darkest days
The prospect of winning fewer than 200 seats will revive memories of Labour's darkest days in the 1930s. Following the great depression, the second Labour government imploded in 1931 after two years' rule when Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald joined a National Government.
He was expelled from Labour and the events almost destroyed the party. Almost 80 per cent of Labour MPs, including their new leader, Arthur Henderson, lost their seats at that year's election with only 52 surviving the electoral massacre as theNational Government under MacDonald took power.
Labour was then beset by bitter rows over foreign policy which led to a party split. Henderson was succeeded as leader by George Lansbury, who was in turn replaced by his deputy, Clement Attlee. Under Attlee, the party managed a partial recovery in the 1935 election, when it won 154 seats with 38 per cent of the vote, as a National Government now led by the Tory Stanley Baldwin held on to power. Eight more were returned under the National Labour banner, along with four who stood for the Independent Labour Party.
Since then, the party has never had fewer than 200 representatives in the Commons, although it came close in the 1983 election when, under Michael Foot's leadership, it could only manage 209 seats at the height of Margaret Thatcher's Tory administration.