Poll shows rise of smaller parties
An opinion poll has placed both the Conservatives and Labour under 30% for the first time in a further indication of the influence smaller parties could have on the outcome of May's general election.
The latest weekly survey for Tory peer Lord Ashcroft put David Cameron's party on 29%, down five points from last week, but still one point ahead of Labour which was unchanged on 28%.
It is the lowest combined share of the vote recorded by the two main parties in Lord Ashcroft's polls and the first time that both have fallen below the 30% mark.
The main beneficiaries appear to be the Green Party, up three points to 11%, with Ukip down one point at 15%, the Liberal Democrats up one at 9% and the SNP also gaining a point at 5%.
The Green's performance in the Ashcroft National Poll (ANP) will add weight to their leader Natalie Bennett's push for inclusion in pre-election TV debates.
Lord Ashcroft said: " The ANP has tended to find a lower combined share for the two main parties than most other surveys, and this is the lowest two-party share I have yet recorded.
"It is also the first time both Labour and the Tories have scored less than 30%. One factor could be that the Greens have benefited from their prominence in the arguments over TV debates - in which case it will be interesting to see in the coming weeks whether they can sustain their share."
There was a clear lead for the Tories over Labour on the crucial election issue of the economy, the study found, with 41% trusting Mr Cameron and George Osborne and 26% backing Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.
Lord Ashcroft also gave a glimpse into the thoughts of people taking part in focus groups he had arranged among undecided voters in Croydon and Dudley, including which animal best represents the party leaders Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband, Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg.
Summing up the responses he said: "Cameron would be 'a fox, being smart and sleek' - or, less charitably, 'a giraffe, looking down on everybody'.
"Farage? 'A peacock, or a weasel'. Clegg? 'A chihuahua in David Cameron's handbag'. Miliband? Puzzlement. 'Certainly not a predator... one of those animals that, when you go to the zoo, you're not bothered whether you see it or not'."
:: Lord Ashcroft Polls interviewed 1,004 adults by telephone between January 16 and 18. Results have been weighted to be representative of all adults in Great Britain.