Labour MPs in marginal seats are, it seems, on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand they cannot afford for Gordon Brown to rock the boat. Yet on the other hand their chances of actually holding their seats would be much better if Mr Brown were to take over from Mr Blair.
Labour currently has a six-point lead over the Conservatives in our NOP poll, enough to ensure that Mr Blair would be re-elected for a third term with a substantial majority. But the lead is three points down on our previous poll in November. And equally importantly, it is three points less than at the 2001 election. Some Labour MPs in marginal seats look as though they will not be around to enjoy the third term.
Yet according to our poll, they would be returned if Mr Blair had in fact fulfilled his alleged promise to hand the leadership over to Mr Brown last autumn. Fifty per cent say they would vote Labour if Mr Brown were to become leader, enough to give the party a lead of more than 20 points over the Conservatives. The prospect of Mr Brown becoming leader appears to be particularly attractive to those currently minded to vote Liberal Democrat, one in five of whom say they would switch to Labour if Mr Brown were leader. Doubtless, a significant proportion of these are former Labour voters who are disenchanted with the current Blairite regime.
Hitherto, most polls have suggested that a change of Labour leader would have at most a small impact on Labour's fortunes. But that is apparently no longer so. Even if we were to treat our respondents' reactions with some scepticism and suggest that not all would actually change their mind in the event of Mr Brown becoming leader, our findings certainly indicate that Mr Brown has a positive image among a crucial section of the electorate - an image that if effectively deployed could help to save the careers of some Labour MPs in marginal seats.
In any event, our findings seem unlikely to help ease the tensions between the Blair and the Brown camps. The sense of grievance evidently felt by the latter can only be stoked by the thought that their man could now be the more attractive electorally. But Labour's lead is neither so large nor so secure that it can afford continuing tension at the top.
John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University.
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