The Tories may do even worse in a general election with Michael Howard as their leader than they would with Iain Duncan Smith, according to a MORI poll for The Independent.
Mr Howard is also perceived as less trustworthy than Mr Duncan Smith, who he is expected to replace without challenge when nominations close on Thursday.
The findings will be a huge disappointment to Tory MPs, who hoped their decision to rally overwhelmingly behind the shadow Chancellor after they ousted Mr Duncan Smith last week would revive the party's flagging fortunes.
MORI's survey of 1,005 adults, taken between Friday and Sunday, gives Labour a six-point lead over the Tories among those who say they are certain to vote double the three-point advantage Labour enjoyed last week before Mr Duncan Smith was deposed. Labour is unchanged on 38 per cent, the Tories down three points on 32 per cent and the Liberal Democrats up four points on 25 per cent. If repeated at the election, Labour would enjoy a third successive landslide win.
A total of 37 per cent of the public say they regard Mr Howard as trustworthy but 35 per cent do not. His "trust rating" is lower than Mr Duncan Smith's (48 per cent) but higher than Mr Blair's. Only 35 per cent regard the Prime Minister as trustworthy; 58 per cent disagree.
However, supporters of Mr Howard will take some comfort from his personal ratings. He is seen as ready to be Prime Minister by twice as many people as Mr Duncan Smith.
Asked whether the shadow Chancellor is, on balance, ready to be Prime Minister, 30 per cent agree and 48 per cent disagree. On MORI's most recent figures, only 16 per cent believed Mr Duncan Smith was ready to become Prime Minister and 67 per cent did not.
Mr Howard, who looks certain to be elected unopposed, launched a publicity drive to change his hardline, uncaring image yesterday.
In his first broadcast interview since emerging as the likely leader, he told Radio 4: "I am aware that I was not a popular Home Secretary and I have thought a lot about that. It is not enough just to win an argument. That doesn't necessarily mean you have won hearts and minds. You have got to take people with you, got to explain what you are doing and try to get people behind you and build a consensus so you can move forward and do things which people will respond to."
Suggesting he was less bloody-minded than he used to be, he said: "One of the things I have learnt is that it is a very good thing to listen to people a lot, to try to take into account as many views as you can before you make decisions."
He admitted he was "very, very surprised" to find himself in a position where he was poised to become Tory leader after coming last in the 1997 leadership election. Echoing Margaret Thatcher's words on the day she resigned, he said: "It's a funny old world."
During a visit to a print works in Romford, Essex, Mr Howard insisted his party could offer both tax cuts and better public services. "You need both," he said. "It is because this Government has failed to improve public services that they have heaped on the taxes."
Mr Howard acknowledged the Tories had to reform. "The world has changed, the country has changed and we have to change. We need to show the people how we can serve them better than this failing and discredited Government," he said.
Pleading for his party to maintain its new-found sense of unity, he said: "I want every Conservative between now and the next general election to wake up and say to themselves every morning, 'What can I do today to persuade the people of my country that we in the Conservative Party can serve them better than the way in which they are being served by a discredited and failing Government?'"
Although he has the backing of 130 of the Tories' 165 MPs, Mr Howard said he was not taking victory for granted. "I am not the leader. There are three days left. It is open to anyone else to put their nomination in." John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, pointed to Mr Howard's right-wing credentials. He said: "We will remind him of his record. It was very unpopular. His record is a bad one, his personality is not so great." Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said: "Michael Howard can't escape his record ... he is just as hardline as before."Reuse content