As we enter the critical autumn period, it looks like the coalition is beginning to lose the political argument over cuts. A new Populus poll in today's Times (£) shows that 74 per cent of voters reject the speed and scale of the government's deficit reduction strategy. Just 22 per cent support George Osborne's decision to eliminate the deficit in one Parliament, with 37 per cent preferring Labour's original plan to halve the deficit by 2014 and the same number arguing that "protecting the vulnerable and keeping unemployment low" is a bigger priority than reducing the deficit.
And the rest of the poll won't make much better reading for Cameron and Osborne. The number of voters who think "the country as a whole will fare badly" has jumped from 52 per cent in June to 65 per cent today. Meanwhile, despite repeated assaults on "Labour's legacy", the poll finds that more voters blame the banks and the global recession for the deficit than Gordon Brown.
Finally, even in the absence of a permanent leader, the topline figures show Labour closing in on the Tories, who are just two points ahead on 39 per cent. Things aren't much better for the Lib Dems, who are down four to 14 per cent. But, as Peter Hoskin points out at Coffee House, it's not all bad news for the coalition. 59 per cent are happy with its performance overall and 53 per cent believe the government is handling the economy well.
Yet with the 20 October spending review now just over a month away, it's clear that the coalition hasn't done enough to prepare voters for what's to come: the most dramatic round of cuts since the Second World War. The Tories may yet hope to exploit the economic divisions that the Labour leadership contest has exposed but ministers should brace themselves for much worse polls than this one.
P.S. The most important finding from the poll, of course, is the news that 49 per cent of voters blame Cameron and Osborne for the deficit.