The public believe David Cameron and the Conservative Party are ready to govern the country but are still not sure what they stand for, according to a poll carried out by ComRes for The Independent.
A majority of people (53 per cent) think the Tories are ready to govern after the next election, while 37 per cent disagree. Almost one in four Labour voters (23 per cent) agrees. The findings increase the pressure on Gordon Brown as he tries to head off moves by his own party to force him to stand down.
Although senior Labour figures rallied behind the beleaguered Prime Minister yesterday, his critics warned that they would move against him in early September in an attempt to deny him the chance to fight back at the party's annual conference starting on 20 September.
One said: "This poll reinforces what a lot of Labour MPs think – that Tory support is soft and we could fight back and win under another leader.
"Gordon does not have the public's permission to expose the Tories on policy because people have given up on him."
ComRes found that 46 per cent of people agree that "David Cameron is ready to be Prime Minister", while 42 per cent disagree. But 49 per cent agree with the statement "I don't really know what David Cameron stands for", with 44 per cent disagreeing.
By 56 per cent to 37 per cent, people reject the idea that the Tories lack the necessary experience to be trusted to run the country. But 48 per cent of people (and 25 per cent of Tory supporters) agree that they "don't have enough clear policies for me to understand what they stand for", with 44 per cent disagreeing.
Almost a quarter of Labour voters (22 per cent) and 44 per cent of Liberal Democrat supporters believe Mr Cameron would make a better prime minister than Mr Brown. Overall, 52 per cent of the public agree, while 34 per cent disagree. Scotland is the only part of Britain which prefers Mr Brown.
Only 36 per cent of people regard Mr Cameron as "just a slick salesman", as Mr Brown has dubbed him, while 52 per cent disagree. Surprisingly, one in five Tory supporters holds that view, while four in 10 Labour backers do not. People no longer regard the Tories as the "nasty party" – by 53 per cent to 36 per cent.
Significantly, more than half of Labour supporters (51 per cent) agree the Tories are no longer "nasty", as do 57 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters. But 34 per cent of those who intend to support the Tories think the party is still "nasty".
The poll findings will fuel Labour's intense debate following its crushing defeat in last Thursday's Glasgow East by-election. Mr Brown's critics believe they tell the same story as this year's elections and by-elections – that the Tories' 20-point poll lead reflects an anti-Labour protest rather than positive support for Mr Cameron. "He hasn't yet won people over; a new Labour leader could claw it back," one former minister said.
The manoeuvring against him may persuade Mr Brown to pre-empt his critics after his Suffolk holiday by bringing forward a snap reshuffle of the Cabinet and unveiling measures to help hard-pressed families cope with the economic downturn.
John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, led the attempts to save Mr Brown's premiership. In a statement to Labour members, he warned that the public would not forgive MPs who provoked a leadership election. Referring to the Cabinet, Mr Prescott said: "Not one of them has the national and international experience to be able to deal with the sort of problems we've got today more so than Gordon Brown."
David Blunkett, the former home secretary, told the MPs challenging Mr Brown's leadership to "grow up".
He said: "The issues that affect people are not ones which divide the party or Gordon Brown from any potential successor."
Jack Straw, the Cabinet's elder statesman and a possible "caretaker" leader, issued a statement of support after speculation that he might ask Mr Brown to quit.
He said: "I am absolutely convinced that Gordon Brown is the right man to be leading the Labour Party. The result in Glasgow East was obviously disappointing but it would be a big mistake for the Labour Party to now turn in on itself and indulge in a summer of introspection."
ComRes telephoned 1,021 GB adults on 23 and 24 July. 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.ukReuse content