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The Conservatives are ahead by three points in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll, conducted over the past weekend. The Tories are up three to 34 per cent, with Labour unchanged on 31 per cent, the Lib Dems up one at 9 per cent and UKIP down one at 14 per cent. The Greens are down three points at 6 per cent and the SNP unchanged at 4 per cent.

All the changes are within the margin of error of last week’s figures, and of other recent polls, most of which show Labour a point or two ahead.

On preference of Prime Minister, opinion is largely unchanged since I last asked the question in November. Nearly six in ten said either that they were satisfied with the job David Cameron is doing as PM (30 per cent) or that they were dissatisfied but would rather have him as PM than Ed Miliband (29 per cent). Only just over a quarter (27 per cent), including 69 per cent of Labour voters, said they were dissatisfied with Cameron and would rather see Miliband in Number Ten.

When it comes to specific prime ministerial attributes, the gap has widened in recent months. I found Cameron 36 points ahead of Miliband on “representing Britain in international negotiations” and “being able to lead a team”, 29 points ahead on “making the right decisions even when they are unpopular”, 27 points ahead on “having a clear idea of what he wants to achieve”, and 31 points ahead on “doing the job of Prime Minister overall” – a bigger lead in every case than when I last asked this question in September. Miliband’s traditional advantage, on “understanding ordinary people”, has fallen from 16 to four points (41 per cent said he would do a better job in this regard; 37 per cent named Cameron).

In every case except “understanding ordinary people”, swing voters (who say they have not decided how to vote or may change their minds) gave a bigger advantage to Cameron than voters as a whole – and were more likely to prefer Cameron to Miliband as PM overall. UKIP voters were also much more favourable to Cameron than the country as a whole. One third of Labour voters said Cameron would do the better job of leading a team and making the right decisions even when they were unpopular; 37 per cent of them said he would do the better job of representing Britain abroad.

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The qualities of the two leaders were a critical factor for many of last week’s undecided focus group participants, in Ramsgate and Bury. It has long been clear that the result in May will largely hang on how people resolve their dilemma when they prefer Labour to the Tories, but Cameron to Miliband. Several people in our groups, including some who voted Labour in 2010, said the Labour leader was the single biggest barrier to their taking the party seriously. Though some felt he was “genuine” and “really does care”, the downside was that he “couldn’t lead a procession” and “doesn’t seem to have confidence in his own beliefs”. Cameron, who for some had a lack of empathy with less well-off people that led him to make mistakes, was nevertheless “decisive” and “exudes confidence”, which were crucial attributes in uncertain times: “you’ve got to have a Prime Minister who looks the part when he represents the country and I think he does that”.

Among the hefty proportion of voters who think it makes little difference who wins, but do not want to spend their vote on one of what they see as the protest parties, some will revert to the party that they think best shares their values. But a proportion will look at it differently: for them, if the result is neither here nor there, we might as well have someone who knows what he’s about. “Cameron is cutting council budgets, but is Miliband going to do anything different? So you might as well go for someone who gives you confidence.”

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The Labour v. Boots row, which around of half our participants recalled when reminded (people generally admit it when something has passed them by), appears to have ended in a score draw. Stefano Pessina, the company’s chief executive, warned last week that Labour’s policies would be a “catastrophe” for business. But Labour’s attack on Mr Pessina’s tax status had gone some way to neutralising the effect of his words. As a major employer Mr Pessina “probably has his finger on the pulse somewhere”, and for some it was “a bit of a concern if this is the best response Labour can come up with. It’s not really answering the point he made”. But for others their indignation over the tax question invalidated his other points, and some went as far as to say it had done more to put them off Boots than Labour.

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The idea of English Votes for English Laws had not managed to capture the imagination of our participants, or sometimes their understanding (“is it when you’ve got to prove you’re English for certain things, like using the NHS?”). Most people supported the idea that laws only affecting England should ultimately be decided only by MPs representing England, though some thought such laws might be difficult to distinguish. However, nobody claimed the issue would affect their vote: “it’s not the biggest deal of the day”.

What it did do, like the Miliband-Salmond poster discussed in last week’s groups, was highlight division and remind people of SNP demands for extra powers despite what people regarded as Scotland’s already favourable arrangements on things like tuition fees and prescription charges. “Every time Nicola Sturgeon comes on the telly you just get the feeling she hates us. She’s so angry”. As one participant lamented, “we used to be quite unified but now it’s all splinter groups”.

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As previous groups had noticed, Ed Miliband seems always to be “on about the National Health”, though Labour’s attempts to blame problems in the NHS on the Conservatives were not altogether convincing. “A lot of people are going to A&E for sore thumbs”, and after all, whoever is in government “it’s still managed by the same managers”. As for privatisation – which people loosely define as anybody making a profit at any stage, or any kind of outsourcing, or charging, or anything else that sounds remotely disagreeable (only a few took the view that “if it’s reducing the waiting list and you get the same service, it doesn’t matter”) – the coalition had not introduced the idea: “Labour did it with the buildings and the Tories carried it on”.

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In Ramsgate, part of the Thanet South constituency, most did not much mind that Nigel Farage had chosen the place because of the chance it gave him of being elected. Most of those inclined to consider UKIP said they would either have voted for the party whoever was standing or liked the idea of being represented by such a prominent figure, not least because they felt the area had seen better days and needed a boost: “there’s no port any more, no airport – there are two industries here, shop work and care”. None of our small sample of participants was very excited about Al Murray’s Pub Landlord candidacy: “he’s a p*** taker. The same as the Monster Raving Loonies.”

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More widely, most of those who did not support UKIP were nonetheless glad they were there. Though they did not always take Farage very seriously (“every time you see him he has a glass in his hand. You think, ‘well, you’re going to save the nation, aren’t you?’”), they thought he was performing a useful service in creating debate about issues other parties would rather ignore. Some even rather admired him: “if you look at what he’s done, four or five years ago you wouldn’t have believed it”.

But even some of his admirers and potential voters accepted that Farage was able to make declarations and promises secure in the knowledge that he would never have to deliver on them. This is why the other parties find the UKIP phenomenon so frustrating. They want to tell the voters to grow up and pull themselves together – unlikely to be a winning message.

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At this stage, what were people’s biggest reservations when it came to each party? For the Greens and UKIP, it was the fear of wasting a vote in the greater scheme of things, even though UKIP were in contention in one of the seats: “they’re both about posing the idea rather than getting into government”. For UKIP people also mentioned “policies they don’t voice, like cutting maternity leave” and, in both destinations, a suspicion that the party might harbour unsavoury factions.

The biggest doubt about the Lib Dems was simply that “you get the feeling they’re finished”, and that they had “lost their soul” after the experience of coalition – though they were not a big factor in either of the seats we visited this week.

The two main reservations about Labour were that “they would go back to how they were before – spend, spend, spend”, and Ed Miliband himself – “he just waffles… he stops me getting into Labour.”

For the Conservatives, it was the traditional fear that “they’re more interested in the shareholders than the workers”, and their inability to keep the promise on immigration, which cast doubt on future pledges.

What, then, did people make of the Tory mantra of “chaos versus competence”? Neither quite hit the mark, though the Conservatives had the better claim to competence than their rivals. But “chaos” was not quite the fear of Labour. Most struggled to come up with such a pithy description of their own, but for some a theme was beginning to emerge: “the entire battle is about long term solutions versus short term solutions and throwing money at things”.

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Finally, the question on the lips of most serious commentators: if each leader were a beverage, what beverage would they be? Mr Farage, predictably enough, would be the pint of bitter that is his trademark. The PM? A good red wine (“full bodied, decent percentage”), a G&T, or James Bond’s Vesper martini. Mr Clegg would be a Babycham, or perhaps a Woo-Woo, which as aficionados will know is a cocktail comprising vodka, peach schnapps and cranberry, not simply a belief in the irrational or unfounded. Mr Miliband? Crème de Menthe, “the sort of drink nobody would order”. Or a non-alcoholic beer. “Or a Bloody Mary. Actually no, just a tomato juice.”

>Visit LordAshcroftPolls.com for full details of Lord Ashcroft’s research and to sign up for news alerts. You can also follow him on Twitter: @LordAshcroft

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