The first voting intention poll of 2007 shows the Conservatives seven points ahead, the highest recorded by Populus since they started polling in 2003. The full voting intention figures, with changes from last month’s poll, are CON 39% (+5), LAB 32%(-1), LDEM 18%(-1).

To some extent the big jump in Conservative support is likely to be no more than a correction after a poll last month that looked unusually low for the Tories – Populus’s recorded a 1 point Conservative lead when pollsters like YouGov and ICM, who normally produce broadly similar figures, were showing leads of between 4 and 8 points. That said, it is still the highest lead yet recorded by a pollster that normally produces comparatively low Conservative leads.

Unusually the poll also shows Labour performing better under Brown than under Blair. Each month Populus asks a hypothetical voting intention question every month, asking how people would vote if the party leaders were David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Sir Menzies Campbell. Invariably this shows the Conservative lead increasing with Brown as leader, but this month it shows Labour increasing their vote to 34% under Brown, the first poll since BPIX back in March 2005 to show Labour doing better under Brown.

The poll echoed previous findings on whether Gordon Brown should call a general election soon after becoming Prime Minister. 56% of respondents, including 76% of Tory voters and 40% of Labour voters, support having an election soon after the new Labour leader succeeds Tony Blair.

UPDATE: The full hypothetical voting intention were Gordon Brown to be Labour leader were CON 39%, LAB 34%, LDEM 15%. Populus also asked how people would vote if John Reid were Labour leader. Questions like this are important – one of the few imaginable scenarios where Gordon Brown does not replace Tony Blair is if polls consistently show that a different leader would do far better than Brown would as Labour leader. In this case John Reid clearly doesn’t – Populus suggest that with Reid as leader people would vote CON 44%, LAB 27%, LDEM 20% – a Conservative landslide victory.

Populus also asked respondents to rate the three party leaders out of ten – figures for all three were broadly steady with David Cameron top with an average rating of 5.11 (down slightly from 5.2 in the autumn), Tony Blair on 4.69 (up from 4.63) and Sir Menzies Campbell on 4.65 (a slightly more substantial increase from 4.47).

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