A nation split down the middle

The Britometer poll

A poll carried out exclusively for the NS reveals that the country is profoundly divided on war with Iraq. And it has alarming news for Tony Blair.

The NS/Citigate DVL Smith poll found that 36 per cent of respondents agree that Britain should not go to war with Iraq in any circumstances (not, implicitly, even if there is a second UN resolution authorising an invasion), while 48 per cent disagree. This suggests the PM could still convince the public of the merits of invading Iraq, particularly if President George Bush stays on the UN route.

But the poll also reveals the scale of the struggle that faces him, and the political perils along the way. What is remarkable about the poll is not so much the extent of the division as the depth of it. Two in three of those who agree that Britain should not go to war hold this view strongly. The same applies to those who disagree. In other words, if our poll is right, more than half the country may have pretty well made up its mind already - but on opposite sides. How people voted at the last election or whether they voted at all makes hardly any difference to their views. Iraq, it seems, has not only split the country; it has split the parties (or at least their supporters) internally.

Moreover, Blair faces trouble not just among those who supported Labour at the last election - of whom more than one in three say they are less likely to vote for the party again if ministers go to war without UN approval - but, crucially, among "floating voters" who say they have voted for more than one party in the past. Most respondents said that if Blair went to war it would make no difference to their future voting (few say that going to war would make them more likely to vote Labour). But a majority of floaters say they are less likely to vote Labour if there is a war without UN approval, and 38 per cent say they are "much less likely".

Among voters from the C2 social group - the skilled working classes who are said by some experts to swing elections - the results are equally worrying for the PM. They are more likely than any other social group to say UK participation in a war could put them off voting Labour.

And the main charge of the anti-war lobby - that Blair is too willing to do what the US tells him - appears to have struck home. Nearly half our respondents (48 per cent) strongly agree with the charge; a further 21 per cent slightly agree. Only 16 per cent disagree, either slightly or strongly. But our respondents were divided almost evenly on whether Blair had handled things well since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Yet there is no evidence that our respondents take either Saddam Hussein or the terrorist threat lightly. More than two-thirds agree that Saddam is "a significant threat to the world" (only 15 per cent disagree); 59 per cent agree that "we need to prepare urgently for chemical and biological attacks" (25 per cent disagree).

Where Blair has so far failed, it seems, is in convincing the country that his answer to these threats - based on the possibility of military action - is the best available. It is possible that, since our interviews were carried out, the presentation to the UN by the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, has changed opinion. As the anti-war protesters take to the streets, the Prime Minister must certainly hope so.

Citigate DVL Smith carried out telephone interviews with 498 people between 30 January and 3 February