Poll: Blair should not step down

On the British prime minister's 10th anniversary as Labour leader, his public sees him as competent enough to stay -- for now.

Published July 20, 2004 1:57PM (EDT)

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of Tony Blair's leadership of the Labour party tomorrow, voters have a largely negative view of the prime minister but still see him as competent and experienced.

Today's Guardian/ICM poll to mark the day Mr Blair was confirmed as John Smith's successor uncovers a sense among voters that the Blair era will come to a close some time after next year's general election.

But most of the electorate does not want him to step down just yet. The Tories are nowhere, Michael Howard is slipping back, losing ground to Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats.

Before today's debate on the Butler inquiry, the July Guardian/ICM opinion poll also shows that a clear majority of voters  55%  believes that Mr Blair lied over Iraq.

Opposition to the war has jumped 13 points in Britain in the last two months; 56% say it was unjustified  the highest level recorded on the ICM war tracker.

As Mr Blair squares up to fight off yet another assault on his handling of Iraq in the Commons this afternoon, the voters see life in Britain as no fairer than it was and see him as a leader who has broken his 1997 campaign promise to govern "in the interests of the many and not the few."

Although a clear majority regards Mr Blair as their premier of choice, they also see him as arrogant, dishonest and "too presidential."

That is a significant perception. Mr Blair is not the first prime minister to be so described. Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson were too. But the age of 24/7 TV news magnifies a leader's power  and faults.

Although Tory and Liberal Democrat voters, egged on by the anti-Blair media on both left and right, understandably want him to go before the next general election, the centre of gravity of opinion among Labour voters appears to be that he should stand down some time after next year's general election.

This is a significantly shorter timescale than they were prepared to contemplate in May, when 48% said he should go on until the general election after next. Voters are getting used to the idea of Life After Blair, but are slow to adapt to the Brown Era. The chancellor looks likely to have to be patient a little longer. Michael Howard looks like waiting for ever.

Mr Blair can take some comfort in the fact that he still retains strong personal support among Labour's core vote: 67% still regard him as "honest" and "trustworthy" and do not want him to step down before the next election.

As Mr Blair enters his eighth year in power, Labour still retains an election-winning five-point lead over the Tories on this month's ICM's voting intention question.

Mr Howard has a minus-8 points approval rating on this month's poll. The Conservatives had only 30% of the vote. The alternative parties who are exciting voters are the Liberal Democrats, who in the wake of their byelection triumphs are up three points to 25% this month, and the Greens and Ukip, who both take a 3% share of the vote.

Mr Blair may feel that it is his personal political reputation rather than that of the Labour party which has suffered most from the continuing row over the Iraq war. This month's poll provides further fuel for that analysis, as it shows that Gordon Brown would more than double Labour's lead to 11 points over the Tories if he were Labour leader.

The detailed ICM poll find ings show that Mr Blair's personal rating remains firmly in the doldrums at minus-22 points. Only 36% of voters are satisfied with his performance as prime minister, while 58% are unhappy. Among Labour voters 77% give him their approval, but his overall rating has now been bouncing along the bottom of the graph since the Iraq war.

Despite "four inquiries and no funeral," a clear majority of voters, 55% now believe that Mr Blair did lie over the war. Those who believe it was not justified rose from 43% in May to 56% this month. Support for the invasion has fallen over the same period from 44% to 38%. Among Labour voters 58% say they still support the war and 38% are opposed. Those opposed are mainly Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters.

The decline in Mr Blair's personal standing is clearly shown. In 1997 only 21% regarded him as arrogant; 65% felt he was in tune with them; 80% felt he had "lots of personality"; and 57% felt he was tough. Now 52% regard him as arrogant; only 37% believe he is in tune with them; and 54% say he is full of personality.

Only a year ago, 49% believed he was honest  a rating that has fallen to only 37% today. The voters are not all unkind to him. More than 70% now regard him as "experienced" and more interestingly 57% say that he is "competent"  up from 52% a year ago.

As for the longer view, the voters were asked by ICM to make a judgment about whether Britain has become a fairer country in the 10 years since he became the Labour party leader. Only 22% of all voters said they believed Britain was a "fairer" place, and surprisingly only 43% of Labour voters made the same judgment. More than a third of all voters, 38%, said they believed life in Britain has actu ally become less fair, including 15% of all Labour voters. The rest depressingly felt there had been no change over the last decade, including 38% of Labour voters.

Similarly, when voters were asked whether Mr Blair had achieved his promise to act "in the interests of the many, not the few", 64% of all voters said they believed he had failed to do this.

Loyally, 68% of Labour voters felt he had achieved that aim, but even among the government's supporters, 31% felt he had failed.

As to the state of the Labour party itself the popular view  shared by 66% of voters  is that it is less in touch with "people like me" than it was 10 years ago. Only 27% believe it is more in tune with the country than when Mr Blair was elected leader on July 21 1994.

ICM interviewed a random sample of 1,007 adults aged 18 and over by telephone between July 16  18, 2004. Interviews were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults.

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