Leading article: The electorate is fearful and losing faith in Mr Brown

'Independent' poll shows that voters have turned against the PM
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The Independent Online

The Brown bounce is over. The poll in today's Independent demonstrates in stark terms the suggestions of other recent surveys that the Tories have regained a substantial lead over the Government. Equally significantly, the poll suggests that voters are losing confidence in the ability of Gordon Brown and the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, to handle the economic crisis.

Of course, polls are only a snapshot, revealing the state of public opinion over the period when the survey is conducted. But it is clear that while voters were impressed with Mr Brown's original response to the crisis, they have now turned against him. None of the Government's recent initiatives, from the pre-Budget report to last week's second rescue package for the banks, has done much to change people's minds about the Government's strategy. On the contrary, the continuing drip-drip of alarming economic news – the shrinking economy, growing public debt, soaring unemployment, rising house repossessions – only reinforces a sense of disillusion.

On one level, there is little the Prime Minister can do about this. As Chancellor for 10 years – and one who delighted in taking credit during the years of growth as the man who abolished "boom and bust" – he cannot hope to persuade voters that any other political party is to blame for Britain's plight. Indeed, his reputation looks more threadbare by the minute, his achievements diminishing as it becomes increasingly clear that he allowed the nation to drift into dangerous economic waters, while doing nothing to wean the country off its addiction to credit.

In this sense, the political dynamics in Britain are very different from those at work in the US. While Mr Brown and Barack Obama are to some extent following similar economic strategies, President Obama arrives in office as a new and fresh force in politics, untainted in the eyes of American voters by the Bush administration's economic mismanagement. Moreover, he has four years to sort out the economic mess before he must face the electorate again.

Mr Brown, by contrast, has dominated the British stage since 1997 and must call an election by summer next year at the latest. He looks increasingly like a victim of economic and political cycles that are out of synch. But while his predicament looks dismal, and he seems more and more at the mercy of events rather than the self-proclaimed saviour of the world, there is still some hope. The polls remain volatile, the voters are promiscuous and it is clear that David Cameron's Tories still do not have an entirely convincing response to the economic crisis.

Additionally, Mr Brown will be hoping that by the time of the election there will be some green shoots apparent as he surveys the economic landscape. This is not impossible, but his backbenchers are worried that a different course of events is far more likely. If this summer's European and local election results are as bad for Labour as many expect them to be, they will add to a sense of crisis, and Labour may be left fighting to prevent an electoral bloodbath.

For the Tories, meanwhile, the danger is precisely the reverse. There is a risk of complacency when their programme remains sketchy and half-baked. As yet, there is little sense that they have any real answers to the downturn, and little evidence that they have the tools in their locker to repair the devastated public finances that confront whoever wins the election. For now, however, they are the favourites to be left to clear up after the current economic maelstrom.