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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