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'Blofeld's' Poll Sends Shivers Through Tories
When Michael Ashcroft was Tory deputy chairman and bankrolling the Conservatives, jokers inside party HQ used to call him Blofeld, after the villain in the James Bond films.
I often used to imagine him sitting in a big office in 32 Smith Square - now, ironically Europe House and London home of the EU - and stroking a white cat sitting on his lap.
These days he's taken seriously as an opinion pollster. And the message he delivered to the Conservative Home spring conference was no laughing matter for the Tory activists in his audience.
And he delivered the results of his latest opinion poll with all the menace of Blofeld. And the activists sat in stunned silence as he revealed what he called "the gruesome details".
The poll, carried out in samples of 1,000 in 26 of the closest Labour-Conservative marginal constituencies, shows a bigger Labour lead than any of the recent opinion polls in newspapers.
Asked how they would vote in a general election in their own constituency, 41% said Labour, 29% Conservative, 8% Liberal Democrat and 18% UKIP.
The ConHome members had just tucked into a tasty lunch of fish and chips in paper cones followed by a chocolate mousse when they had to digest these alarming figures for the Tories.
The 6.5% swing to Labour in the Ashcroft poll was enough to oust 83 Conservative MPs, he said. And when I interviewed him later for Sky News, he said it was enough to give Labour a Commons majority.
The hard-to-swallow findings of the poll came only a couple of hours after George Osborne gave the activists something to chew over in a speech on the lessons for the Tories from the local government elections.
His rallying call to the party was "listen, respond and deliver" and there were five lessons from Thursday's elections for the Conservatives, he said.
1. The economy: Making sure the recovery was for all;
2. Immigration, jobs and welfare: Delivering policies that work;
3. Europe: "People feel cheated by the political class," he said. "We should stop complaining that the public don't believe us."
4. The North: The Tories must be the voice against Labour. UKIP's successes in the north showed people felt ignored by Labour;
5. Work hard: "Harder than this party has worked for a generation".
In the promised Q&A, the Chancellor only took three questions, one from me, one from James Landale of the BBC and one from the veteran Tory grassroots campaigner John Strafford. But Strafford's was a belter.
"You say you're going to listen to UKIP voters and respond to them," Strafford began. "But what will you say to them when the UKIP voter says they oppose HS2, they are in favour of grammar schools, they want foreign aid cut, they want EU immigration controlled, they want to scrap subsidies on wind farms and solar panels, they are uncomfortable about gay marriage and they think the Help to Buy scheme is barmy?"
There was laughter from some members of the audience, but Osborne's face bore a pained expression. Then, when he attempted to defend Help to Buy, another audience member shouted "Build more homes!"
So after my helpful question about calls from Tory MPs for a pact with UKIP, the Chancellor "made his excuses and left", as they used to say in the Sunday red tops.
His excuse was that he had to catch the midday train to Newark to go campaigning for the by-election on June 5 in which the Conservatives are defending a 16,000 majority.
Despite his noticeably new svelte figure, brought about by the 5:2 fad diet, we're told, George Osborne is no Daniel Craig, or any other James Bond. (I tell people Daniel Craig is my cousin, but he isn't really.)
But for the Chancellor, listening to the menacing words of the man Tory staffers call Blofeld would have been sheer torture.