Labour surges to a 15-point lead, but there's a catch

60% of voters still prefer Cameron as Prime Minister to Miliband.

The latest Times/Populus survey (£) is the most striking poll we've seen for months. It gives Labour a 15-point advantage over the Tories (45 to 30), the largest lead that any pollster has shown for the party in this parliament. If repeated on a uniform swing at a general election, those figures would send Ed Miliband to Downing Street with a majority of 136 seats.

But there's a catch. When asked whether they would rather have Cameron as prime minister or Miliband, just 31 per cent said they wanted the Labour leader, with 60 per cent preferring Cameron (a rise of four per cent since June). Of those who chose Cameron, 23 per cent said this was because they were happy with the job he is doing, while 37 per cent said they were unhappy but still preferred him to Miliband.

But this is a parliamentary system, you say, why should we care? The answer is that personal ratings are frequently a better long-term indicator of the election result than voting intentions. Labour often led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance (sometimes by as much as 24 points), but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. A more recent example is the 2011 Scottish parliament election, which saw Alex Salmond ranked above Iain Gray even as Labour led in the polls. The final result, of course, was an SNP majority.

By the time of the election, when opposition parties come under greater scrutiny and governments tend to claw back support (as was the case in 2010), the Tories will hope that Cameron's superior personal ratings (if they last) will give them the edge. For all the opprobrium heaped on him by the right, it's a reminder that the PM is still an electoral asset for his party.

Labour leads the Conservatives by 15 points, its largest lead since the election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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George Osborne's surplus target is under threat without greater austerity

The IFS exposes the Chancellor's lack of breathing space.

At the end of the last year, I noted how George Osborne's stock, which rose dramatically after the general election, had begun to plummet. His ratings among Tory members and the electorate fell after the tax credits imbroglio and he was booed at the Star Wars premiere (a moment which recalled his past humbling at the Paralympics opening ceremony). 

Matters have improved little since. The Chancellor was isolated by No.10 and cabinet colleagues after describing the Google tax deal, under which the company paid £130m, as a "major success". Today, he is returning from the Super Bowl to a grim prognosis from the IFS. In its Green Budget, the economic oracle warns that Osborne's defining ambition of a budget surplus by 2019-20 may be unachievable without further spending cuts and tax rises. 

Though the OBR's most recent forecast gave him a £10.1bn cushion, reduced earnings growth and lower equity prices could eat up most of that. In addition, the government has pledged to make £8bn of currently unfunded tax cuts by raising the personal allowance and the 40p rate threshold. The problem for Osborne, as his tax credits defeat demonstrated, is that there are few easy cuts left to make. 

Having committed to achieving a surplus by the fixed date of 2019-20, the Chancellor's new fiscal mandate gives him less flexibility than in the past. Indeed, it has been enshrined in law. Osborne's hope is that the UK will achieve its first surplus since 2000-01 just at the moment that he is set to succeed (or has succeeded) David Cameron as prime minister: his political fortunes are aligned with those of the economy. 

There is just one get-out clause. Should GDP growth fall below 1 per cent, the target is suspended. An anaemic economy would hardly be welcome for the Chancellor but it would at least provide him with an alibi for continued borrowing. Osborne may be forced to once more recite his own version of Keynes's maxim: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.