Tories enter 2008 heading for outright victory

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David Cameron enters 2008 on course to win an overall majority at the next election, according to the latest "poll of polls" for The Independent.

Amid a dramatic slide in Gordon Brown's ratings last autumn, it suggests that Labour faces a tough battle to head off an election defeat by a Conservative Party consistently scoring above 40 per cent in the polls for the first time since "Black Wednesday" in 1992.

The weighted average of the monthly polls by ICM, Ipsos MORI, Populus, YouGov and ComRes puts the Tories on 41 per cent, Labour on 32 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 16 per cent at the close of 2007. At a general election, that would give Mr Cameron an overall majority of 16. The Tories would win 333 seats, Labour 258, the Liberal Democrats 28 and other parties 31.

"For the first time in 15 years we have to take seriously the possibility that the Conservatives could win an overall majority," said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiled the figures. But he added that any significant Tory slippage or Labour recovery would point to a hung parliament.

"Labour is almost exactly where it was last spring, just before Tony Blair announced his resignation," he added. "However, it has now played its card of replacing an unpopular leader with a new one. The Tories are in a stronger position than they were in the spring, with the Lib Dems weaker. This time Labour's task of finding a 'get out of jail' card looks much more difficult."

The ratings of the Government and the Prime Minister are almost as bad as they were at the start of 2007 when Mr Blair was still in power. Mr Brown has lost popularity more rapidly and earlier in his term of office than any of his recent predecessors including Margaret Thatcher, said Professor Curtice.

He likened Mr Brown's position to that of James Callaghan, the last Labour prime minister to take office in mid-term. His net satisfaction rating of plus 41 points slumped to minus 17 points after the economic crisis in 1976 when Britain was bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. Although Callaghan did recover, he lost the next election.

While Mr Brown's ratings are not quite as bad as Mr Blair's were a year ago, Mr Cameron appears to be more of a threat to Labour than he was then. In contrast to his predecessors William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, the Tory leader is becoming more popular as more people get to know him. Some 39 per cent are now satisfied with him and 47 per cent believe he is proving a good leader his highest ratings yet.

Another worry for Labour is that the issue on which its ratings have fallen most sharply is as the best party to manage the economy down 16 points since September. On health, schools and immigration, Labour is down six points. Professor Curtice said: "Following the bad economic news stories of the past few months, handling the economy no longer looks like one of Labour's trump cards."

His detailed breakdown of the polls traces the dramatic collapse in Labour support this autumn. After Labour's annual conference at the end of September, Labour was on 41 per cent and the Tories on 33 per cent. But the Tories drew level on 39 per cent after their conference the following week and then moved ahead by 42 per cent to 37 per cent when Mr Brown scrapped a planned general election and Labour was accused of copying Tory policies in its pre-Budget report.

The Tories moved further ahead, by 40 per cent to 31 per cent, in November after it emerged that HM Revenue & Customs had lost child benefit records containing personal data on 25 million people.

The only crumb of comfort for Labour was that the controversy over its secret donations from the property developer David Abrahams did not appear to inflict further damage to its standing in the polls.