Labour slides as gap widens

National has reopened a wide lead over Labour in the Herald DigiPoll survey as pressure builds on the Government to produce a strong Budget to change its fortunes.

National could govern alone with its 52.1% support in the poll, which also puts John Key at his highest rating as preferred prime minister on 48%.

The widening gap between the two major parties comes after a period where it had appeared Labour was clawing back support. Only four weeks ago, Labour narrowed the DigiPoll gap to just 10 points, but that has widened to 14.9 points after a month in which the Prime Minister has extolled the Chinese Free Trade Agreement, but also had to contend with unwanted distractions emanating from Labour's election year congress.

National has gained 2.2 percentage points in the poll, while Labour has lost 2.1 points to register 37.2% support.

It is now clear much rides on the budget that Labour will unveil on May 22.

While the Beehive is keen to avoid budget expectations running away on it, all eyes will be on the tax cuts - and any other surprises the Government might have up its sleeve - to help people struggling with high food, petrol and mortgage costs.

Of the voters involved in the DigiPoll survey 22.1% rated tax cuts as the issue most likely to influence their vote.

That made tax cuts the most influential issue overall, and further evidence that people's hip pockets may decide the election was provided by the economy coming in as the second most important issue on 18.5%.

Among Labour voters, tax cuts was the most influential issue, although hospital waiting lists were a close second - emphasising the delicate balance Finance Minister Michael Cullen must strike between cutting taxes and providing key public services as he settles on his ninth budget.

Dr Cullen was giving nothing away yesterday when asked about what might be done to alleviate the money pressures households are feeling.

He said no final decision had been made yet on the timing and size of his tax cuts.

It remains unclear how the Government will offer the ‘‘timely'' relief Miss Clark has spoken of this week, because tax cuts may not come into effect until April 1 next year.

It is also expected the budget will feature a significant broadband Internet initiative, something the Government planned before National last week announced a surprise $1.5 billion broadband push.

Labour's broadband move - which is likely to involve Government investment in a different form to National's, alongside financial help for a new transtasman undersea cable - is part of a wider strategy designed to show the party still has the longterm vision to lead the country.

But National's deputy leader and finance spokesman Bill English last night argued any attempt to ‘‘throw cash'' around in the budget would be greeted with cynicism by voters.

‘‘After eight years of lost opportunities, it's going to be hard for Labour to get the public's attention,'' he said.

The Greens will be heartened by their 5.2% rating in the new poll, which would make it the only smaller party to cross the crucial 5% threshold.

New Zealand First has failed to get a boost from a month of heavy publicity about free trade, State asset and immigration issues, and remains struggling on 1.5%.

Miss Clark trails Mr Key slightly in the preferred prime minister stakes, coming in at 45.3% support compared with the National leader's 48%.

- The poll of 769 respondents was conducted between April 5 and 26 and has a margin of error of 3.5% and the results are of decided voters only. Undecided voterstotalled 6.3%.

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