Cameron outpolled by the Tories: why the PM should fear Ashcroft's new poll

Expect Conservative rebels to seize on the finding as proof that the party could be performing better under an alternative leader.

Supporters of David Cameron typically respond to critics of his leadership by pointing out that the PM consistently out-polls his party. In other words, the problem is you, not him. But a new poll from the prolific Lord Ashcroft suggests that may no longer be the case. Asked whether they are more favourable to Cameron or "the Conservative Party generally", 18 per cent say the former and 22 per cent the latter. What was a two point Cameron lead in October has become a four point Tory lead. (As for Ed Miliband, he trails Labour by an elephantine 28 points.)

It's true that the gap is marginal and that one should never draw any firm conclusions from a single poll, but don't expect that to stop the Tory rebels (at least 30 of whom have signed letters requesting a confidence vote on Cameron, 16 short of the minimum required) citing it as evidence that the party could be performing better under an alternative leader. Given the relative slimness of the Labour lead in Ashcroft's poll (10 points), the danger for the PM is that Tory MPs conclude that a 1990-style regicide could allow them to sneak a win. 

Cameron still enjoys a commanding lead over Miliband as the public's preferred prime minister (57-30) and is viewed as better at representing Britain in international negotiations (a 24-point lead), making the right decisions even when they are unpopular (16 points), having a clear idea of what he wants to achieve (22 points), being able to lead a team (14 points) and doing the job of Prime Minister overall (16 points). The only measure on which he trails the Labour leader is "understanding ordinary people" (a Miliband lead of 26 points). (Incidentally, given that he is actually Prime Minister, it's hardly surprising that Cameron is viewed as better at doing the job overall and at international negotiations.) But that Cameron continues to enjoy this advantage, even as he trails his party, will only prompt his critics to ask: couldn't someone else be doing even better? They're almost certainly wrong, of course, but don't make the mistake of assuming reason on the part of the Conservative Party. 

David Cameron during a press conference at Elysee Palace on May 22, 2013 in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.