By Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC.

The Conservatives are on course to hold onto Newark in the by-election on Thursday, according to a poll I have conducted in the constituency. I found the Tories on 42 per cent, with UKIP second on 27 per cent and Labour third on 20 per cent.

This represents a fall in vote share for all three established parties since the last general election: the Conservatives are down 12 points, Labour down two and the Liberal Democrats down 14 points on their 2010 score.

Two thirds of Newark voters said either that they were satisfied with the job David Cameron was doing as Prime Minister (34 per cent) or that even though they were dissatisfied they preferred him to Ed Miliband (31 per cent). Only one fifth, including less than a quarter of UKIP voters and only two thirds of Labour supporters, said they would rather see Miliband in Number Ten.

The Conservatives led comfortably on all policy issues – including managing the economy, tackling the cost of living and Britain’s relationship with the European Union – with the exception of “improving public services like schools and the NHS”, on which they were level with Labour.

Around four in ten expected the economy as a whole to improve over the next year for the country as a whole, including 62 per cent of Conservative voters and around a third of Labour and UKIP supporters. Only 16 per cent thought things would get worse, a similar proportion to that saying they expected things to get harder for themselves and their families. While a quarter expected their personal circumstances to improve, more than half said they would probably stay the same.

Cameron and George Osborne were more trusted to run the economy than Miliband and Ed Balls by a margin of 62 per cent to 24 per cent. A majority of UKIP voters and a quarter of Labour supporters said the same.

This poll shows a bigger Tory lead than was found by Survation in their by-election poll published at the weekend. Interestingly, though, the two polls put UKIP within a point of each other. This would seem to suggest that the “spiral of silence adjustment”, used in my poll but not in Survation’s, made little difference in UKIP’s case. The adjustment works by re-allocating a proportion of those who refuse to state or claim they don’t know how they will vote to the party they voted for at the last election. It was introduced to help account for “shy” voters who were reluctant to admit their allegiance, a problem which had the effect of seriously skewing polls at previous elections. The similarity of the UKIP share in polls that did and did not use this adjustment suggests that there is nothing shy about the party’s voters; they do not coyly claim to be undecided.

This makes sense when you consider that most UKIP supporters say the chance to register their discontent is one of the main reasons for their decision. Seven in ten of those planning to vote for Roger Helmer on Thursday say they are making a general protest to show they are unhappy with all the parties; only 16 per cent of them say this was not a factor. More than six in ten UKIP supporters say they were sending a message that they were unhappy with their usual party – more than twice the proportion of Lib Dem voters (and three times the proportion of Labour voters) saying the same.

A by-election two weeks after the European election means that Newark’s electors have enjoyed the prolonged attention of the parties, a privilege for which they must surely be grateful. The evidence from my poll is that the Tories have had the better of an intense ground war and have by no means taken the seat for granted. More than nine out of ten voters say they have heard from the Conservatives locally, including 81 per cent who have had literature through the door; nearly half have received personally addressed mail. Eight in ten say they have heard from UKIP; the party is reported to be slightly more active than Labour in all elements of the local campaign.

The poll was conducted in the week before polling day, and just under a fifth of voters say they may yet change their mind. Despite this, it looks clear that the next MP for Newark will be Robert Jenrick.

Meanwhile, Labour are up three to 34 per cent in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll, extending their lead over the Conservatives to nine points. UKIP have risen a further two points to 19 per cent, while the Liberal Democrats continue their dismal run, falling back to six per cent. The Tories’ share, 25 per cent, is their lowest in a published poll for a year. We will see in the next few weeks whether this is a blip in the midst of a volatile period or something more troubling for David Cameron (and, as ever, it is worth bearing in mind the 3-point margin of error).

Most voters said they expected the economy to do well over the coming year, both for themselves and the country as a whole. Conservative voters were not surprisingly the most optimistic, but a majority of other parties’ supporters, including Labour’s, were also confident. On one level this is good news. But as I pointed out in the context of my marginal seats poll, which found a similar picture, it also shows that economic optimism does not necessarily translate into a Tory vote – or at least not yet.

As the election approaches, Labour will start to ask voters whether they feel better off than they did in 2010. Few currently answer in the affirmative. Though half of Tories said the country was now better off than it was four years ago, only 38 per cent said the same for themselves. Overall, 36 per cent said they and their families were worse off and 43 per cent said this was true for the country. Half of UKIP voters said things had got worse on both fronts.

The problem Miliband will have with this question is that few think the situation would have been any better had Labour been in charge. Seven voters in ten said they thought things would have been just the same or even worse had Britain had a Labour government since 2010. This includes two thirds of Lib Dems, 71 per cent of swing voters and 84 per cent of UKIP supporters – indeed only just over half of Labour voters themselves thought either they or the country would be any better off had their party been in office since the last election.

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