Tories close their gap as Blair loses publics trust

Labour and the Conservatives are running virtually neck and neck after two months of phoney election war, a YouGov poll for The Daily Telegraph shows today.

With Tony Blair preparing to launch the formal campaign for a May 5 election in 10 days, only one percentage point separates the parties.

YouGov puts Labour on 35 per cent (down three since February), the Conservatives on 34 (up two) and the Liberal Democrats on 22 (up one).

The poll suggests that the fillip Labour received from last week's Budget was short-lived.

The Tories, who have forced the Government on the defensive by highlighting issues such as dirty hospitals and illegal traveller camps during the pre-election campaign, suffered a setback of their own last night.

Howard Flight resigned as a deputy chairman after suggesting that the party's spending cuts would go much further than Michael Howard has admitted.

Mr Flight, one of four deputy chairmen, told a meeting of the Right-wing Conservative Way Forward group that the scale of planned spending cuts was being concealed because "whatever the fine principles, you have to win an election first".

In his taped remarks, which were subsequently leaked, he hinted that further tax and spending cuts would be possible once the Conservatives were in power because "everyone on our side of the fence believes passionately that it will be a continuing agenda".

Last night Mr Flight said he resigned because his remarks did not accurately reflect party policy.

But Alan Milburn, Labour's general election co-ordinator, said Mr Flight's disclosure that the Tory plans to spend £35 billion less than Labour were "just the tip of the iceberg" and that they were secretly proposing more drastic cuts.

In recent weeks the opinion polls have been volatile, giving Labour leads ranging from one to eight points.

While the Tories have so far been unable to break out of a range of 32 to 35 per cent, their core vote appears to be more solid than Labour's.

The poll confirms that trust is now a major problem for the Prime Minister. Sixty-three per cent said the Government was "not honest"; 26 per cent thought it was.

The question of the legality of the Iraq war and the misuse of intelligence came back to haunt Mr Blair yesterday as the Government came under intense pressure to publish the "entire paper trail" of the advice Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, gave before the conflict.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, rejected the demands, saying that to publish such advice would have "very grave" implications for good government.

The Conservatives seized on the controversy to raise questions about Mr Blair's integrity. Dominic Grieve, their legal affairs spokesman, said the full legal advice must be published to reassure the public that Lord Goldsmith "was neither leant on to change his views for party political reasons, nor deceived by the Prime Minister on the facts on which war might be justified".

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, deplored the way the Government's response to the Butler report on the pre-war intelligence failings had been issued on Wednesday while Mr Blair was out of the country and unable to answer at Prime Minister's Questions.

The row has thwarted Mr Blair's hopes that he could bring an end to the most divisive issue of his premiership.

Labour concentrated its fire on Mr Howard, whose hit-and-run tactics exposing the Government's weak points have unnerved Labour MPs.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said the toughest decision the Tory leader faced each day was "which bandwagon to jump on once he gets out of bed".

Tory MPs protested at Mr Blair's failure to be in the Commons for Mr Straw's emergency statement on an issue which goes to the heart of the Government's credibility.

Mr Blair found time, however, to visit a hospital and to telephone Heart FM radio to wish good luck to a presenter, Jono Coleman, who was moving to another station. Asked whether it really was the Prime Minister on the line, Mr Blair said: "Well, I was when I woke up this morning."

Tories close the gap

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