Hung parliament looms as Tory support crumbles

• ICM poll reveals gap down to seven points
• Voters losing faith in Tories on economy
• Bullying charity under attack over No 10 claim

Support for David Cameron's Conservative party has crumbled to its lowest point for nearly two years, according to the latest monthly Guardian/ICM poll, leaving Britain on course for a hung parliament at the coming general election.

The survey, showing the Conservatives holding only a seven-point lead, will come as a relief to Gordon Brown as he continued to fend off potentially lethal claims over his complex character, including suggestions that he bullies staff.

The accusations – which surfaced in a book by the Observer's political commentator Andrew Rawnsley – sparked another day of frantic political manoeuvring yesterday.

One of the Tory party's best known MPs, Ann Widdecombe, quit as a patron of the National Bullying Helpline, the charity which on Sunday sparked a storm at Westminster when its founder, Christine Pratt, entered the political fray, saying she had received four complaints of bullying from No 10 staff.

Last night the charity was close to implosion as other patrons also resigned, saying Pratt had acted unethically. Among those who quit were the television presenter Sarah Cawood and the workplace stress expert Cary Cooper. There were also reports that Tory councillor for Hillingdon Mary O'Connor resigned.

The helpline withdrew any suggestion that the complaints involved Brown, and had to fend off criticism that it had close ties to the Conservative party.

The cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, also rejected calls for a public inquiry and denied he had ever raised concerns with Brown about intimidatory or bullying behaviour to No 10 staff.

In an interview in the Economist, Brown gave his first direct response since Rawnsley's allegations were published. "The cabinet secretary has made it clear that he's had no inquiries, there's been no reprimand, there's been no private message to me ... (The) story is completely wrong," Brown said.

The Tory hierarchy, though, will be alarmed at the party's vulnerability to Labour attacks since the new year. With no more than three months to go until polling day, the Conservatives have fallen to 37%, down three points on last month's Guardian/ICM poll and down two on another ICM poll earlier this month.

The party has not fallen so low in an ICM poll since the tail-end of the banking crisis, last falling to 37% in February 2008.

As recently as last October, the Tories hit 45% in an ICM poll and the party will be alarmed by this latest evidence that the race is tightening, which confirms the findings of some other recent polls. Meanwhile, Labour support, at 30%, is eight points up on its absolute ICM low last May, and slightly above its average for the second part of last year.

The opposition has also lost ground on key policy issues, including the economy, and may be losing their campaign against Labour's so-called death tax.

Labour leads the Tories by eight points as the party with the best policy on care for the elderly. The two parties are neck-and-neck on their ability to sort out the economic crisis, against a nine-point Tory lead when the question was last asked in August 2009.

The economic finding tallies with Labour polling suggesting the Tories are not making inroads with their policy of highlighting the scale of the public deficit and the need to take immediate action to cut it. One Labour source said: "The real valuable political real estate in Britain now is the optimism."

Labour also claims that its personal polling of Cameron shows he is seen as "too shrill, divisive and not speaking for Britain any longer". Labour claims it is succeeding in portraying Cameron as a man running a concealment strategy, caught between his branding and his beliefs.

Labour's static poll position is not all good news for No 10 – the ICM poll shows no boost for the party after Brown's emotional and revealing television interview with Piers Morgan.

Research began last Friday and most was done before the serialisation of Rawnsley's book in the Observer, which may also have affected Labour support. A fifth of responses were collected on Sunday.

Nick Clegg's hopes of a powerful place in a hung parliament are also boosted by the poll, which puts the Liberal Democrats on 20%, unchanged on the most recent ICM and down one point on last month's Guardian poll.

All this suggests Labour and the Lib Dems are holding steady, while the Tories are losing ground to smaller parties. Nationalists are on 5%, Ukip and the Greens on 3% each and the BNP on 2%.

Estimates of what these shares would mean for the parties on polling day vary, but a 7% lead is at the margins of what the Tories think they need to win an overall majority.

Brown will be hoping that the controversy over his character will blow out long before the actual election campaign begins in earnest.

ICM Research interviewed a random sample of 1,004 adults by telephone on 19-21 February 2010. Interviews were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules


Julian Glover and Patrick Wintour

The GuardianTramp

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