The strongest, if still tentative, sign that the Conservatives’ narrow and negative campaign is misfiring emerged on Thursday when three polls showed Labour moving ahead and, for the first time, one poll found that Ed Miliband had more positive personal approval ratings than David Cameron.
The polls were all conducted before the Tories launched a raw personalised attack on the Labour leader on Thursday, accusing him of being willing to stab the country in the back and abandon Trident, Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, to gain power.
With the election four weeks away, Conservative sources insisted their steady warnings about the risk of Miliband in Downing Street would strike home and that previous Labour poll leads had failed to last.
Labour recorded a six-point lead over the Conservatives in a Panelbase poll; it was four points clear in a Survation survey for the Daily Mirror; and three ahead in a TNS poll. The Survation poll also showed that more voters approved of the way Miliband was doing his job as party leader over the past month than David Cameron.
However, the Survation poll also showed that voters still see Cameron as more suitable to be prime minister by a comfortable margin of 37% to 25%.
ComRes research for ITV and the Daily Mail suggested the race was still too tight to call with the Tories on 34% and Labour on 33%.
The findings will raise the morale of Labour activists and strengthen those Tory voices calling for the party, which launches its manifesto next Tuesday, to emphasise the positive reasons to give Cameron a second term.
Labour and the Conservatives are still virtually tied when it comes to the race for largest party. However, there are important factors to consider. Earlier trends that showed Miliband had closed the ratings gap with Cameron following the leaders’ interviews and debates have consolidated and been confirmed by all polling evidence since.
The Tories have relied on the belief that Miliband’s unpopularity and doubts over his prime ministerial suitability in the eyes of the public would ultimately prove decisive. This appears to be no longer true – and the continued attacks are not putting a dent in the polling deadlock.
Sarah Wollaston, who served in the previous parliament as a Tory select committee chairman, urged all parties to show restraint in the campaign saying: “Negative politics is a turn-off for people. Disengagement with politics is partly due to the negativity of it.”
The surveys were conducted before Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, launched a lurid assault on Miliband’s character, claiming anyone who was willing to stab his brother in the back to win the Labour leadership would be willing to stab the UK national security in the back to become prime minister.
He said Miliband was willing to make “a grubby backstairs deal” with the Scottish National party that risked the existence of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.
The Tories will be pleased that Fallon’s tough language managed to shift the campaign focus away from the its perceived defence of non-domiciles who avoid tax.
Cameron defended Fallon, saying he was right to be frank and raise the risks facing the country if there was a hung parliament. Fallon refused to apologise and said he was raising legitimate issues of trust and leadership.
Furious Labour officials insisted that Miliband had repeatedly said he would not strike any deal with the SNP on Trident and has committed his party irrevocably to a continuous at-sea deterrent involving four submarines, if that is the view of the Royal Navy.
Tony Blair, the former Labour leader and the frequent target of Tory negative campaign attacks, claimed the Conservative tactics were a sign of desperation and would backfire.
After a visit to the party’s headquarters in London, he said: “The Tories were up to their old tricks in their personal attack on Ed this morning. I remember the ‘demon eyes’ poster of 1997. It is always a sign of desperation and it will backfire.
“It shows how nervous they are of a Labour campaign full of confidence, which is showing that it understands the challenges facing working people and how to overcome them. The more they indulge in these tactics the better we should feel.”
Miliband said: “Michael Fallon is a decent man, but today I think he has demeaned himself and he has demeaned his office. National security is too important to play politics with and I will never compromise national security”.
Ed Miliband says Michael Fallon has demeaned himself
“I’ve got to say, I think the British people deserve better than what the Conservative party are offering in this campaign, which is a campaign based on deceit and lies. Our clear position is four boats, because that’s what the experts say,” he said.
Labour is hoping the tone of the Tory attack reinforces its image as the nasty party and will not gain traction because, on the specific issue of Trident, the attack is baseless.
But Fallon said the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon had been both explicit and arrogant in television debates this week saying she “was offering to make Ed Miliband prime minister” and had made the SNP’s demand for the cancellation of Trident a non-negotiatiable issue.
Reiterating her stance, Sturgeon said on Thursday: “We will not vote for anything that facilitates the renewal of Trident. I cannot be clearer than that”.
Labour said a Commons majority for the so-called “main gate” in principle decision to replace the Trident nuclear submarines, due next year, could be achieved by an alliance of Tory and Labour votes, making the SNP hostility irrelevant.
Labour pointed out the SNP had not said it would try to vote down a budget that set aside money for Trident or oppose a Queen’s speech from a party that supported its renewal. Either move would, in effect, give the Tories a chance to form a government, something Sturgeon has pledged to prevent.
Fallon was forced to rule out making any coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats over Trident, even though the 2010 coalition agreement between the two parties said they would delay the “main gate” decision until 2016, a postponement that the then defence secretary Liam Fox said had cost the Treasury £1.4bn.
Fallon said: ”There will be no deal between a Conservative government and any other party so far as the four-boat continuous-at-sea-deterrent is concerned”.
He later added: “We are not seeking a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. We have done that. We are not doing that again. We are seeking a majority Conservative government.”
Other polling data showed that Labour was appearing to enjoy a positive week. Survation showed that 59% of the public back Labour’s policy to abolish the non-dom status. Only 16% are against Miliband’s proposals. Even one in two Conservatives are in favour of the plans, with just 20% against.
According to a YouGov poll also released on Thursday, 64% of the public thinks Ed Miliband was right to take on his brother David for the leadership of the Labour party.