Poll reveals crisis of Howard's 'false dawn'

'IoS' poll: Tory leader fails to register with voters, and Blair - despite bad news from Iraq - looks like increasing his majority
Click to follow

The first reaction of one Conservative polling expert when told of today's Independent on Sunday poll was that the next election "surely has to be unwinnable" for Michael Howard.

The first reaction of one Conservative polling expert when told of today's Independent on Sunday poll was that the next election "surely has to be unwinnable" for Michael Howard.

With Labour breaking through the 40 per cent figure for the first time since June last year, six months before a likely general election, many Tory MPs and grass-roots members will groan: "Not again!" The false dawn of Mr Howard's accession to the leadership a year ago this month has gone dark again. The dim glow of hope was kept alight for most of this year, as Tony Blair seemed to face an endless succession of troubles, from Hutton to Butler via bad news from Iraq.

But, as our graph of Labour's lead in the opinion polls throughout this year shows, the party conference season marked a turning point in Labour's fortunes. Mr Howard may be doing better than Iain Duncan Smith, his immediate hapless predecessor, but the party is performing no better than it was under William Hague, who was crushed by the New Labour juggernaut three-and-a-half years ago.

If the changes in vote share reflected in our poll were repeated uniformly across the country next May, Mr Blair would actually increase his majority in the House of Commons to 168.

So why is Mr Howard getting nowhere? The simple answer is that he has failed to extend the Tory party's appeal beyond its core vote - and, partly as a result, even that core is unimpressed by him. Our poll suggests that he does not appeal to young people, who are more likely to write off the party's prospects altogether.

By a majority of 53 per cent, people in the 18 to 24 age group agree that "the Conservatives are likely to be out of power for at least another 10 years", and only 35 per cent disagree.

We asked a question about last week's Queen's Speech that suggests Tory attacks on Labour's programme are failing to hit the mark. When our interviewers put it to people that "the anti-terrorism measures in the Queen's Speech are mainly an attempt to frighten people into voting Labour", 39 per cent agreed, but 48 per cent disagreed.

The effect is that, among people not already intending to vote Tory - those whom Mr Howard must win over - 53 per cent agree that the Liberal Democrats are a more effective opposition, and only 34 per cent disagree.

And Mr Howard's failure to maintain his challenge to Labour has disillusioned Tory supporters. Our poll found that 36 per cent of Tory voters thought that Mr Hague - despite the miserable result he secured at the last election - would be a better leader than Mr Howard.

It is indicative of the party's desperation that, of the leading contenders to replace Mr Howard, one has already had a go and failed, and two are not even in the House of Commons. Michael Portillo last weekend used his Sunday Times column to endorse his erstwhile biographer, Michael Gove. Mr Gove, a journalist on The Times, is undoubtedly clever. He recently won a charity spelling contest by getting coelophysis, which is a kind of dinosaur.

But it must be premature to crown him as the person destined to lead the party out of the Late Cretaceous, even if he has been selected for a safe Conservative Home Counties seat.

The other non-MP in the early running for the succession is Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary who lost his Edinburgh seat in 1997. He has been selected to replace Mr Portillo in Kensington and Chelsea. Unlike Mr Gove, he opposed the Iraq war, which might liberate the Tories to attack the Government with more abandon, but which could also pose excruciating John Kerry-style conflicts for a parliamentary party that voted overwhelmingly for military intervention.

All this speculation is bitterly resented by those people who are already Tory MPs and who have not yet had a turn as leader.

David Davis is a more intellectually curious politician than his reputation as a law-and-order right-winger suggests. But he is damaged by his participation in the parade of unsuitables of 2001 that led to the election of Mr Duncan Smith.

Hence the attention devoted to David Cameron and George Osborne, the rising stars of the 2001 intake, both still in their 30s.The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that Mr Cameron, already a member of the Shadow Cabinet, will be made election policy supremo by Mr Howard, who is grooming him as a future party leader.

CommunicateResearch interviewed 1,033 adults by telephone on 24 and 25 November. The results have been weighted to be representative of all adults

The Conservatives are likely to be out of power for at least 10 years

Agree: 42%

Disagree: 48%

Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats are a more effective opposition than Michael Howard and the Conservatives

Agree: 44%

Disagree: 41%

The anti-terrorism measures in the Queen's Speech are mainly an attempt to frighten people into voting Labour at the next election

Agree: 39%

Disagree: 48%

William Hague would be a better leader of the Conservative Party than Michael Howard

Agree: 35%

Disagree: 45%

Comments