Voters believe it is "time for change" and that the next government should be a Conservative one, according to an opinion poll for The Independent.
The survey by ComRes shows that David Cameron is seen as the best Prime Minister for Britain, as more likeable than Gordon Brown and as having the best frontbench team. But Mr Brown is ahead on the economy.
The most striking finding is that 48 per cent of the public agree with the statement that "it's time for change and the next government should be a Conservative one", while only 36 per cent would prefer a Labour administration to a Tory one.
Mr Brown, it seems, will have a mountain to climb when he tries to mount a new year fightback. The poll suggests that the Tories are seen as a government-in-waiting and that the Prime Minister may struggle to portray himself as a "change" after more than 10 years of Labour rule.
Privately, ministers are worried that "time for change" will become a potent weapon for Mr Cameron, just as it was for Tony Blair in 1997's election. Previous surveys have suggested a narrower gap when similar questions were asked, raising Labour hopes that there is no great clamour for a Tory government. The ComRes findings will raise Tory expectations that a sea change may now be under way.
Mr Cameron is regarded as the more likeable of the two main party leaders by 51 per cent of the public, while only 31 per cent prefer Mr Brown. The Tory leader has a big lead in every demographic and region except Scotland, where Mr Brown is narrowly ahead (by 46 per cent to 43 per cent). One in four (24 per cent) Labour supporters and 30 per cent of people who regard themselves as Labour believe that Mr Cameron is more likeable. So do 50 per cent of Liberal Democrat supporters, suggesting that Mr Cameron poses a threat to the party's new leader, Nick Clegg, as he attempts to woo them.
Four in 10 people believe the Tory leader has the most able frontbench team, while 35 per cent say Labour has.
Mr Cameron enjoys a narrow lead, by 39 per cent to 37 per cent, when the public is asked who would be the best Prime Minister for Britain. About 10 per cent of both Labour and Tory supporters think the other party's leader would make the best Prime Minister. Four in 10 (41 per cent) Liberal Democrat supporters prefer Mr Brown and 33 per cent Mr Cameron.
The only crumb of comfort for the Prime Minister is that he is regarded by 44 per cent of the public as the best person to take the British economy through a tough time in 2008, while 36 per cent prefer the Tory leader. Twice as many (20 per cent) Tory supporters prefer Mr Brown as Labour supporters who opt for Mr Cameron (10 per cent). This suggests that an economic downturn might not necessarily harm Labour's prospects.
The Tories maintain the double-digit lead they enjoyed last month even though Labour has managed a modest recovery. Mr Cameron's party is on 41 per cent (up one percentage point on last month), Labour on 30 per cent (up three points), the Liberal Democrats 16 per cent (down two) and other parties on 12 per cent (down two). These figures would give the Tories an overall majority of 46 at the next election.
The Tories now enjoy wider support and are on at least 40 per cent in each social class. Some 92 per cent of people who identify most with the Tories say they will vote for the party, a higher rating than for Labour (78 per cent) and the Liberal Democrats (73 per cent). Twice as many (12 per cent) natural Liberal Democrats intend to vote Tory than Labour (6 per cent).
Yesterday a Brown loyalist said the Prime Minister was now "the underdog" and that there was a very real possibility of a Cameron government. Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society, blamed the Government's "autumn horribilis" on "a mixture of bad luck, poor judgement and incredible stupidity" but said Mr Brown could still turn it around by setting out a positive argument for change.
ComRes telephoned 1,004 GB adults on 14-16 December, 2007. 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.Reuse content