Tories snatch the lead from Labour in the polls

Tony Blair's days as master of all he surveys on the electoral landscape are over. The Conservative Party may still have much to do to win the next election, but it is a competitive force once more.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister himself no longer seems to have the respect of many of those he seeks to serve.

Our poll puts the Conservatives, with 36 per cent, one point ahead of Labour, on 35 per cent. This is the first non-internet poll to put the Conservatives ahead since Michael Howard became leader last November. When NOP themselves last polled at the end of September, the Tories were on 29 per cent, nine points behind Labour.

In contrast to his two predecessors, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, the new leader has made a favourable first impression on the electorate. As many as 47 per cent say he is doing a good job; only 15 per cent think he is doing a bad job. Perhaps just as importantly, only 13 per cent do not have a view about him. Mr Howard is evidently no "quiet man'' struggling to make his voice heard.

Even Labour supporters have formed a favourable view of the Tory leader. As many as 36 per cent think he is doing a good job, just 24 per cent a bad one. Any hopes Labour might have had that Mr Howard's political past would ensure he repelled anyone other than committed Conservatives have proven wide of the mark.

In contrast, Mr Blair's light has dimmed. True, the reignition of the row about the September 2002 dossier sparked by Lord Hutton's report has not done his reputation any evident harm. Last September, 59 per cent thought that Mr Blair had lied about the threat posed by Iraq, now 54 per cent do so.

But this is too small a fall to show that Lord Hutton's judgment has convinced the public of Mr Blair's integrity. Even amongst Labour supporters only slightly more than half are actually willing to state that Mr Blair did not lie.

Neither does the new inquiry into the intelligence services established this week appear any more credible. Fewer than one in four believe it will be a genuine and thorough attempt to find the truth. More than two-thirds regard the inquiry, chaired by Lord Butler, as an attempt to produce a whitewash for the Government. Again, perhaps most damaging for the Prime Minister is the view of his own party's supporters, no more than half of whom think the inquiry is genuine.

These appear to be tell-tale signs of a Prime Minister struggling to persuade the public of his course. This may explain why 51 per cent back Mr Howard's call for Mr Blair to resign. Only slightly more than one-third think he should stay. Of course it is not surprising that most Conservatives and Liberal Democrat supporters think Mr Blair should go. But that as many as one in four of Labour's voters agree with them suggest his authority has not just been eroded among his fellow Labour MPs but also in the party nationwide.

Yet Labour's electoral fortunes would not be instantly restored if Mr Blair were to take the public's advice to resign. If Gordon Brown were to become leader, just 2 per cent more say they would vote Labour, 2 per cent fewer the Lib Dems, giving Labour only a one point lead. Here, at least, very little seems to have changed since last September when a switch to Mr Brown added just one point.

But it would be a mistake to regard this poll as all good news for Mr Howard. Despite his decision, contrary to that taken by Charles Kennedy, to accept the creation of the Butler inquiry, Tory supporters are convinced it will be a whitewash.

Although the Lib Dems are three points down on their rating last September, when they were boosted by their Brent by-election success, at 24 per cent their rating issix points up on the last general election and three points higher than in any other recent poll. The Tories evidently still cannot ignore the "yellow peril''. Mr Kennedy's consistently critical stance of the Government's handling of Iraq may yet have put him in the better position to profit from any continuing Government misfortune.

NOP interviewed 1,003 people by telephone between 4 and 5 February.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University.

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