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Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 09:04 GMT
Blair ahead in leadership ratings
The opinion polls suggest that Tony Blair leaves both of his main party rivals trailing when it comes to leadership popularity.
When asked by Gallup "Who would make the best prime minister", the March 2000 survey found that 51% of people favoured Mr Blair, compared with 18% for William Hague and 13% for Charles Kennedy.
A further 18% said they did not know.
This has been the basic picture since Mr Blair became Labour leader in 1994.
In the two months before the 1997 general election, for example, the figures were 41% for Mr Blair, 25% for the Tories' John Major and 12% for Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown.
In the wake of his election victory, Mr Blair's popularity soared to a record 67% in October 1997 - 11 points higher than John Major's best rating and 13 points higher than Margaret Thatcher's.
Mr Blair's popularity hovered in the 45%-55% range until the fuel protests of autumn 2000. That issue saw the prime minister's rating fall to 39%, but it quickly bounced back.
By contrast, the foot-and-mouth crisis saw Mr Blair's rating actually increase from 47% in February to 51% in March despite public dissastisfaction with the way he and the government had handled the problem.
Part of the story lies in the relatively low ratings for his rivals.
In the doldrums
William Hague received the lowest figure of any leader of the two main parties since at least 1974 when he received just 8% in the last three months of 1997.
That was even lower than Labour's Michael Foot, who recorded 11% in June 1983.
Since then, he has clawed his way up to receive ratings of between 18%-24% over the past year or so.
That high point of 24%, achieved during the petrol crisis, was still far below Mr Blair's lowest of 32%, which he received in his first month as Labour leader.
Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy has also found it hard going.
His high point since becoming party leader was 19% - again during the fuel protests.
That figure, however, was well below the best achieved by his predecessor, Paddy Ashdown, whose best mark was 26%.
The best third-party leadership rating of recent years was by Liberal David Steel in April 1982, who topped the poll with 38% compared with Margaret Thatcher's 32% and Michael Foot's 16%.
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