By Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC

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Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 20.51.13The year started promisingly enough. The government’s
mid-term review aimed to show what had been achieved and set the agenda for the
rest of the parliament. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Europe speech was
supposed to clear the decks and allow us to talk about the things we were
elected to do. 

So much for all that. My latest poll, conducted over the past
weekend, shows the last six months to have been a missed opportunity to make
progress on the things that will determine who wins in 2015. The ten-point
Labour lead is familiar, though 37% is not much of a score for an opposition
party expecting to sweep to power in 23 months’ time. Indeed UKIP is the only
party with momentum on its side, with more voters saying they are moving
towards it than away from it.

Perceptions of the Conservatives have been eroded further. We
are barely ahead of Labour on having a good team of leaders, and well behind on
being a “united party” (indeed only 28% of voters think that is now true of the
Tories). Since January we have fallen still further behind on being “for
everyone”. Our relative improvement on being “competent and capable” is a
result of Labour sliding even further on the measure than we have.

There are some startling changes since the beginning of the
year when it comes to parties’ trust on different issues. The Conservatives
have fallen behind on “helping business to grow and recover”. The Tory advantage
on “tackling abuse in the welfare system” is down to just five points. And
almost unbelievably, given where we were in the last parliament, our leads on
tackling crime and dealing with immigration have disappeared altogether; the
Tories are now level pegging with Labour on both issues. Labour retain their
30-point lead on looking after the NHS.

This is the price we have paid for spending half a year
talking amongst ourselves. For what it is worth, views have hardly changed at
all on the things we have mostly been talking about. There have been only small
shifts in opinion about the EU since before The
Speech (though there has been a small rise in the number with no strong view
either way), and the most negligible change in the margin between those who are
for and against same-sex marriage (up from 11 to 12 points since May 2012).

There is some good news on the economy, if only in the sense
that the proportion expecting things to be at least as bad or even worse in two
or three years’ time (63%) is no higher than it was in January. The coalition
team of Cameron, Clegg and Osborne are more trusted than Miliband and Balls by
a slightly smaller margin of 14 points, compared to a rather narrower 5 points
when only the Tory and Labour teams are named.

The total preferring Cameron to Miliband as Prime Minister
(57%) is all but unchanged, though there has been a noticeable shift between
those saying they are satisfied with Cameron’s performance and those saying
they are dissatisfied but still prefer him to the alternative. The Prime Minister’s lead is
down – but still strong – on representing Britain in international negotiations
(24 points), making the right decisions even when they are unpopular (16
points), being able to lead a team (14 points) and doing the job overall (16
points). Miliband leads by 26 points on understanding ordinary people.

For the first time, though, the proportion saying they were
more favourable towards the Conservative Party generally than to Cameron
himself was (slightly) higher than those saying the opposite. Miliband
continues to be significantly less popular than his party.

Overall, views of the three leaders have changed remarkably
little over time. Asked to choose from a selection of words and phrases that
might describe them, participants continue to choose “out of touch” for
Cameron, with “stands up for Britain” as a positive counterbalance. Miliband
remains predominantly “weak” and “out of his depth”, with no very prominent
positives. Clegg contrives to combine the weaknesses of the other two, being
“weak”, “out of his depth”, andout
of touch” all at the same time.

All in all, the first half of 2013 represents a time of
stagnation that we could hardly afford. We have a good case to make on many of
the policy areas on which we have lost ground, including crime, immigration,
welfare reform and the economy. But people will only hear that case if we use
the available air time to make it. The latest round of parliamentary scandal
will make people all the more resistant to what we have to say, and the
spending review later this month makes it all the more necessary to show we are
doing what people expect of us. There is no more time to waste.