UK opinion polls narrow ahead of election, suggest Gordon Brown may yet avoid an ouster

By David Stringer, AP
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

UK’s Brown on his way out, or is he?

LONDON — It may not be over after all for Gordon Brown.

The beleaguered leader has been all but written off for more than two years — beset by an expenses scandal, war casualties and a cloud of discontent that seemed to hover wherever he trod. But opinion polls are tightening and some analysts claim that as Britain emerges tentatively from recession, Brown may have an unexpected shot against the opposition Conservative Party’s telegenic, but untested David Cameron.

Boosted by a recovering economy and unexpected hesitancy from his chief political foe, polling data shows Brown making up ground on the once runaway opposition.

Analysts and political activists are raising the prospect of Britain’s first hung Parliament in 26 years, or — if his unlikely turnaround can continue — Brown winning his governing Labour Party another five-year term in office.

While the Conservatives still lead Brown’s governing Labour in opinion polls — an advantage they’ve held since January 2008 — the gap has been narrowing since the turn of the year.

In a poll published Tuesday, ComRes put Labour at 31 percent and the Conservatives at 38 percent, still 7 percentage points ahead, but weaker than the 9 percentage point margin it reported in December.

Of 13 polls in December, a total of nine gave the opposition a lead in double figures. However, the five most recent polls have all reported that the Conservatives’ advantage has slipped into a single digit.

“There’s no question that there’s a tightening across the board, based on a number of polls, and the situation is inching toward a scenario where a hung Parliament is possible,” said Tony Travers, a political scientist at the London School of Economics.

A British election last produced a hung Parliament, a scenario in which no party has an outright majority of House of Commons seats, in 1974. Like then, it’s likely whichever party forms a minority government would call a second 2010 national election, to seek a majority.

Brown has been buoyed by economic data released last week which showed Britain’s worst recession since World War II is officially over, and has seemingly bested Cameron in the debate over how to maintain the pace of recovery.

Polls show the public agree with Brown that it’s too early to make drastic spending cuts aimed at reducing the country’s 870 billion pounds (US$1.4 trillion) national debt — because to do so could jeopardize growth.

Cameron vowed last month to rapidly reduce Britain’s debt if he wins power, pledging only to protect spending on health and overseas aid.

Over the weekend, he unexpectedly softened his tone. “We’re not talking about swinging cuts,” Cameron told the BBC on Sunday.

Sunder Katwala, head of London’s leftist Fabian Society think tank, says that although Brown’s chances are improving and Cameron’s response on the economy appears muddled, the opposition chief is still likeliest to be Britain’s next leader.

Before an election takes place, Britain could slip back into recession — gross domestic product rose only by 0.1 percent in the final quarter of 2009 — and Brown will give testimony at the country’s inquiry into mistakes made in the Iraq war — factors which could stall the leader’s revival.

Analysts also caution that polls don’t take account of heavy spending by the Conservatives in the key marginal House of Commons districts where voters are most likely to switch from Labour to the opposition.

Two recent polls show the Tories ahead in bellwether towns, said Mike Smithson, a poll watcher and author of the “Political Betting” blog.

“They are all showing a significantly greater swing to the Tories than in the country as a whole,” Smithson said. “And the election is won in 100 marginal seats, not in 600.”

Smithson predicts Cameron’s Conservatives are likely to win the election with a majority of between 30 and 40 seats.

Brown’s Labout currently has a majority of 63 in the 646-seat House of Commons.

Britain must hold a national election by June 3, 2010. Brown is seeking a fourth successive five-year term for his Labour Party, while Cameron aims to return his party to power for the first time since 1997.

ComRes said Tuesday’s poll based on telephone interviews with 1,001 adults Jan. 29-31. Polls of that size typically have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.


Associated Press Writer Gregory Katz contributed to this report.

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