June 2, 2017 / 1:08 PM / 3 months ago

UK PM May's lead down to 5 points, model estimates 60-seat majority

Prime Minister Theresa May appears on a joint Channel 4 and Sky News general election programme recorded at Sky studios in Osterley, west London, May 29, 2017.Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Files

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May's once formidable lead has been eroded though her Conservative Party could still be on course to win a majority of seats in parliament, an opinion poll and an electoral model showed on Friday.

With less than a week before polling day on Thursday, May's Conservatives now lead the opposition Labour Party by just five percentage points, down from 15 just over two weeks ago, according to the survey from Ipsos MORI.

The Ipsos MORI poll put the Conservatives on 45 percent, down four points from a comparable survey on May 18, with Labour up 6 points to 40 percent.

"It is clear that on contact with the voters, Mrs May is not going down well and she is losing ground in particular amongst middle aged voters and female voters," Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, told Reuters.

Page said that Labour's share of the vote included many younger voters who had not voted before.

"Even with all those young people who say they are going to vote and may not, Mrs May should still win a majority so I wouldn’t sell your pounds yet," Page said.

The findings echo other recent polls which show May's once commanding lead of more than 20 points when she called the campaign being whittled away, meaning she might no longer win the landslide she hoped.

A respected model made by Michael Ashcroft, who once served as treasurer of the Conservative Party, showed on Friday that May's likely majority had declined from a week ago but estimated that she would still increase her majority to 60 seats.

A failure to win the June 8 election with a large majority would weaken May just as Brexit talks are due to begin while the loss of her majority would pitch British politics into turmoil.

Against the Bank of England’s trade-weighted basket, which measures sterling’s broader strength, the pound is now back where it was on April 9, before May called the election.

May, who won the top job in the political chaos following the shock June 23 Brexit vote, had hoped the election would strengthen her hand ahead of Brexit negotiations, and the party was expected to take advantage of the apparent weakness and disarray of its main rival.

However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a 68-year-old socialist peace campaigner, has been pulling big crowds at rallies across the country, brushing off warnings from opponents in his own party that he would lead them to electoral disaster.

In a further blow to the Conservatives on Friday, one of its candidates who beat leading Brexit figure Nigel Farage in the 2015 parliamentary election, was charged with breaking expenses rules during that campaign.

NEW FINANCE MINISTER?

The Ipsos MORI poll found May's personal ratings had fallen, although she still held a 15-point lead over Corbyn on who would make the better prime minister.

Pollsters, who universally got it wrong at the last election in 2015, showed support for May and the Conservatives falling after she was forced to backtrack on one of her most striking election pledges to make elderly people pay more for their social care, which opponents dubbed a "dementia tax".

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said while May was no longer certain of increasing her parliamentary majority, she was sceptical about suggestions the Conservatives would lose their current slim majority.

"The most likely outcome here is a Tory (Conservative) victory, but a Tory victory no longer certain of an increased majority," she said.

If the latest polls are wrong - and they have previously underestimated Conservative support - and May wins a sizeable victory, she will axe current finance minister Philip Hammond and replace him with interior minister Amber Rudd, the Daily Telegraph reported.

Doubts about Hammond's future have mounted since he had to reverse plans to raise payroll taxes for self-employed workers just days after presenting his first annual budget in March, while Rudd has played a highly visible role in the election.

May praised her performance when she stood in for the prime minister at a televised election debate on Wednesday against all the leaders of Britain's other main parties, after May herself declined to attend.

"If the prime minister has a very big majority she will be able to do what she likes - the bigger the majority, the bigger the reshuffle," an unnamed minister was quoted by the Telegraph as saying.

Asked if he would still like to be finance minister after the election, Hammond told the BBC: "Of course I would, that's a silly question. We have a very big challenge ahead of us and I believe I can play a part in that, as all of my colleagues can."

Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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