Every poll of the general public so far has shown Ken Clarke to be the most popular candidate for the Conservative leadership. Every poll asking how people would vote with various potential Tory leaders has shown that Clarke would put on the most votes. However, every such poll has also had to be hedged with caveats saying that Ken’s lead may just be down to him being easily the most recognised of the candidates. People don’t pick David Cameron, say, or Liam Fox because they have very little real idea of who they are.

There is a YouGov poll in today’s Spectator (registration required) that tries to deal with this problem. Instead of just giving respondents a list of names to chose from, they were asked how likely they were to vote Conservative, then shown a photo of one of the candidates, along with five statements about them – things about their background and things they’ve said during the campaign – and asked to say, based on the things they’d just read, how likely they would be to vote Conservative with that person as leader.

Once the candidates were put on a level-playing field, Ken Clarke was no longer the leader who would increase the Tory vote the most. In fact he increased it the least. On average people currently rate their chances of voting Tory at the next election as 3.3/10. With Ken Clarke in charge it would go up to 3.6/10, with Liam Fox in charge 4.0/10, with David Cameron or David Davis it would rise to 4.2/10.

Exactly how much weight you place on this obviously depends upon how well the information given to respondents in the poll actually reflects the candidates’ positions. Since candidates haven’t issued nice neat one page statements of where they stand on issues this is far from easy, and to get a rounded picture it is also necessary for potential negatives about candidates to be pointed out (such as Cameron’s background at Eton and Clarke’s links with BAT). Most of the statements are actually culled from candidates’ speeches in recent weeks, but even then there is the question of what things to include. Liam Fox, for example, has spoken about human rights in China, rebuilding the “broken society”, mental health, abortion, Iraq, the European Union and so on – with each candidate getting only 5 statements, only a few of them can be mentioned.

So while the relative positions of the candidates are only as accurate as you think the statements summing up the broad thrust of their campaigns are, the more important finding of the poll is that Ken Clarke’s lead really is just down to increased recognition – tell respondents about who the other candidates are, what they look like and some of the things they stand for, and they too can be just as popular.

As to the particular strengths and weaknesses of the candidates, there are no great surprises. Ken Clarke’s anti-war stance and his general ordinary-bloke image are his greatest strengths, his experience in government is a positive and his links with BAT a negative. David Davis’s personal narrative – growing up on a council estate to a single parent family before going on to forge a successful business career was, predictably, a strong positive, as was his support for low taxes. People were less sure about his support for bringing more competition and choice into public services. It’s probably worth noting that the was a particular gender difference with David Davis – amongst women voters likelihood of voting Tory went to up 4.4, amongst men it only went up to 3.9.

David Cameron’s family background – his young family, his personal experience of looking after a disabled child and resultant campaigning for the disabled, was a positive (although his own priviledged background and Eton schooling was strong negative), as was his support for a more inclusive party. His most positive score (and the most positive score for any of the statements in the survey) was for his statement that the Conservative party should change its attitude to public services, and start seeing government spending on things like education and transport as a positive good, not a necessary evil.

People liked Liam Fox’s background as a GP, and his emphasis on the family (although David Davis and David Cameron made similar comments and got similar positive reactions), and his Euro-scepticism was a plus, but his closeness to the US and support for the war were a strong negative.

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