By Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC.

Labour and the Conservatives are level in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll, conducted over the past weekend. The Tories are up three points on last week to 31 per cent, with Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP unchanged on 31 per cent, seven per cent and 18 per cent respectively. After the last week’s surge to eight per cent and fourth place the Greens are back below the Lib Dems at their longer term average of 5 per cent. The SNP scored four per cent.

In other questions David Cameron and George Osborne led Ed Miliband and Ed Balls by 19 points (45 per cent to 26 per cent) on the question of who was most trusted to manage the economy in the best interests of Britain – a margin that is unchanged since I last asked the question in the ANP in June. Swing voters most trusted the Tory team by 31 points (50 per cent to 19 per cent), and UKIP voters by 39 points (56 per cent to 17 per cent). Nearly a quarter of Labour voters trusted Cameron and Osborne more than their own leaders.

This lead on economic management is valuable for the Conservatives but is put into perspective by a separate question on voters’ priorities. “Improving the NHS” topped the list of the most important issues both when respondents were asked to think about Britain as a whole and those affecting themselves and their families. Six in ten named the NHS in their top three issues facing the country, including 55 per cent of men and 65 per cent of women. Only 50 per cent of Conservative voters mentioned the NHS, compared to 63 per cent of swing voters (who say they do not know how they will vote or that they may change their mind before the election).

“Getting the economy growing and creating jobs” has fallen to second place since June, with 54 per cent naming it in their top three issues for the country and 53 per cent for themselves. “Controlling immigration” was in third place with 48 per cent mentioning it in their top three issues for the country (including 82 per cent of UKIP voters). However, only 33 per cent put immigration among the top three issues facing themselves and their family, placing the issue fourth on that score behind “improving schools”, mentioned by 42 per cent.

Despite the latest battles with Brussels only 14 per cent (including only 20 per cent of UKIP voters) named “protecting Britain’s interests in Europe” among the three biggest issues facing the country, and only 11 per cent among those affecting them personally.

These findings sum up the balance the Conservatives will have to achieve over the next 27 weeks. The economy will rightly be a central part of the Tory campaign but it would be a risk to make it the exclusive message if public attention is shifting towards public services.

At the same time, events in Europe will need a strong response from the PM; my research has found that voters like to see him taking a robust stance even if he cannot win every fight. But the Tories must resist the temptation to be distracted by Europe at the expense of things that matter more to most voters.

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