Gordon Brown may come to regret being so relaxed about his neighbour continuing to occupy the top spot until the summer. Monthly surveys by the British Election Study at the University of Essex have found that Tony Blair's declining popularity is affecting support for the Chancellor.
The surveys ask respondents to score politicians out of ten, based on how much they like or dislike them as individuals. The answers turn out to be strong predictors of voting intentions; American research has shown that most voters carry in their heads a "running tally" of positive and negative feelings about politicians. When asked, these voters may not recall anything that a politician has said or done in the previous year, but the evidence shows that subconsciously the tally influences voting behaviour.
Over the past 12 months at the University of Essex, they have charted the average scores for Blair and Brown. The decline in both sets of results suggests that Labour will lose votes at the next election unless the situation can be turned around. The fact that the two sets of results move with each other suggests that they are linked. A further statistical test reveals that they are causally related. This test is based on the idea that if a change in the first series is followed by a similar change in the second a month later, then it is likely that the first causally influenced the second.
In the case of Blair and Brown, Blair's support is influencing Brown's, but not the other way round. As the Prime Minister's popularity fades it drags down his Chancellor. Every one-point drop for Blair is matched by a loss for Brown of just over half a point.
While this has been going on, Brown's scores have been falling further behind those of the Tory leader, David Cameron. If the scores of these two in the most recent survey are analysed by region, Brown is behind Cameron in every one, apart from Scotland and the north of England. One might expect Cameron to be ahead in places like the south-east and the south-west of England, but he is also ahead in Wales and even in Yorkshire and Humberside. In fact, Cameron's largest leads over Brown are in the east and west Midlands, which contain quite a few marginal seats.
Clearly, once the Chancellor gets to Downing Street he will probably distance himself from the Blair era with a blizzard of initiatives. But if his support falls low enough people will no longer listen to what he has to say. It will then become difficult for him to change people's minds because they will switch off when he speaks. This is what has been happening to the Prime Minister in recent months. The longer this goes on, the greater the likelihood that Brown's premiership will be short, culminating in a loss of office at the next election.