Tories surge to 5-point lead over Labour, according to poll of polls

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The Conservatives have opened up a five-point lead over Labour after an attempted fightback by Gordon Brown failed, according to the latest "poll of polls" for The Independent. A week ago, after Mr Brown disclosed there would be no general election this year, the rolling average of the most recent opinion surveys showed the two biggest parties neck and neck on 39 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats trailing on 12 per cent.

But, after a week in which Labour tried to regain the initiative by announcing troop withdrawals from Iraq and its tax and spending plans, the party has gone backwards. A weighted average of latest three polls, taken since Tuesday's economic statement, puts the Tories on 42 per cent, Labour on 37 per cent and the Liberal Democrats stuck on 12 per cent.

The first sniping at Mr Brown from a close ally of Tony Blair surfaced yesterday when Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the former Lord Chancellor, said the Prime Minister needed to set out a vision for the future and "renewal does not come from a change of leadership alone". Writing for The Sunday Times, the peer warned that if Labour relied on experience and its ability to handle crises, "we will be offering drift, not leadership, and the past not the future".

It also emerged that Lord Falconer is involved in a dispute with the Government over the size of his pension after being dropped from the Cabinet by Mr Brown in June. The Cabinet Office says he should receive £52,193 but Lord Falconer claims he was promised a pension based on the Lord Chancellor's £232,900 salary, even though he drew only the £104,386 pay of a Cabinet minister in the Lords.

Mr Blair emphatically denied criticising Mr Brown, as the Blairite former cabinet ministers Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers dismissed reports that they were about to launch a blitz of new policies to appeal to Middle Britain.

If the most recent poll results were repeated at an election, Labour would win 305 seats, the Tories 303, the Liberal Democrats 16 and other parties 26.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiled the figures, said the Tories were at their highest since Black Wednesday in 1992, when John Major's government was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

"We may finally have seen the point where the Conservatives have erased that memory and persuaded the public to look at them afresh," he said.

One reason that the Tories were doing so well was that the Liberal Democrat vote had slumped to its lowest since 2001, the professor added, saying: "If the Tories can sustain their position, the mutterings about Sir Menzies Campbell will inevitably grow," he added. While David Cameron's ratings have improved, he still trails Mr Brown as the most capable Prime Minister and handler of the economy. This made it "far from inevitable" that the Tories would sustain or extend their lead, Professor Curtice said.