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: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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