Cold wind from Washington could blow away Labour's nine-point lead

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The secret wish of most Labour MPs must be: "Oh that spring were here." Our latest NOP poll indicates Labour has opened a nine-point lead over Conservatives. If that were to materialise at the election, nearly every Labour MP could hold their seat, and Tony Blair would have a secure third term.

The secret wish of most Labour MPs must be: "Oh that spring were here." Our latest NOP poll indicates Labour has opened a nine-point lead over Conservatives. If that were to materialise at the election, nearly every Labour MP could hold their seat, and Tony Blair would have a secure third term.

But there are still six months till the most likely election date in May. That is a very long time in politics. One sign that Labour's lead might not withstand a harsh political winter is that its voters seem less keen to vote than Conservatives. Among those certain to vote, Labour's lead falls to five points.

One direction from which a cold wind could blow is Washington. Despite the substantial antipathy many British voters have towards the European Union, they would still be happier seeing their Prime Minister courting leaders in Brussels, Berlin or Budapest than watching him fly across the Atlantic to congratulate George Bush. No less than 64 per cent say it is more important for Britain to have good relations with other countries in Europe than with the United States. Only a quarter take the opposite view. Labour voters place a slightly higher premium on good relations with Europe. Mr Blair's Atlanticist sympathies have most appeal to Conservative voters.

But despite doubts voters may have about Mr Blair's foreign policy, the Conservatives face losing the domestic argument, in particular the public mood on tax and spend. The party has been trying to persuade us it may be possible to have tax cuts without damaging the main spending priorities of NHS and education. But voters are unconvinced. Only 37 per cent reckon it possible to cut taxes without harming services such as the NHS and education. Fifty-eight cent think it impossible. And middle-class voters, who might expect to gain most from a tax cut, are just as likely to believe taxes cannot be cut as working-class voters.

Four years ago, Conservatives stood at 34 per cent, four points higher than now. They face gaining little from Labour but losing more seats to the Liberal Democrats. For Mr Howard, the winter could prove short.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University

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