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It was Margaret Thatcher who famously declared: “The only poll that matters is the general election.”

And over the years, many more party leaders have wisely repeated her cautious advice when confronted with huge opinion poll leads.

The Labour lead according to the latest YouGov MRP mega poll isn’t just big, however. It’s massive: a 154-seat majority for Sir Keir Starmer.

Not that the Labour leader will be popping any champagne corks or dreaming of moving into 10 Downing Street just yet.

Despite months of solid double opinion poll leads of up to 20%, Sir Keir has imposed an iron discipline on his inner circle and shadow cabinet members about the danger of complacency.

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Sir Keir has imposed an iron discipline on his inner circle about the danger of complacency

But there will be quiet satisfaction among the Labour high command that this latest mega poll confirms that the feared drop in the party’s poll lead over the Tories isn’t happening yet.

In fact, this YouGov MRP poll suggests that Labour is heading for a bigger majority than predicted in the last mega survey, back in mid-January, which forecast a 120-seat majority for Labour.

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Another change from the mid-January poll is that the number of people polled is up from around 14,000 to nearly 19,000, a truly enormous sample.

But if Labour is reassured by these findings, the Conservatives will be plunged into yet another bout of blood-letting, open civil war and attempts to oust Rishi Sunak.

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People are crying out for change of government, says Labour

Optimism for the Tories?

Okay, let’s look at the most optimistic scenario for Mr Sunak and the Tories: that there are many thousand “don’t knows”, that Reform UK has peaked, and the waverers will return to the Conservatives.

One big health warning on the YouGov MRP poll is that it asked voters how they would vote if the election was held tomorrow. Well, it’s not going to be held tomorrow and may not be for more than six months.

On his electioneering tour of northeast England this week, Mr Sunak said he wants to hold the election when people “feel that things are improving” and repeated that he is planning to go to the polls in the second half of this year.

“I’ve said repeatedly and clearly that my working assumption would be that we have a general election in the second half of the year,” he told BBC Radio Newcastle. “There has been no change to that.”

Rishi Sunak says the England football kit doesn't need to change
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Rishi Sunak said he wants to hold the election when people ‘feel that things are improving’

The 154-seat Labour majority in the new poll is edging towards the 179-seat majority won by Tony Blair in 1997, though well short of a 254-seat majority suggested in another MRP-style poll in mid-February.

Many of the new poll’s predictions will no doubt be queried by MPs and party officials, who will study its every detail in the hours and days ahead.

For example, many in the Labour high command will argue the prediction of 201 gains and 403 seats for Sir Keir is on the high side, given the Tories currently have a working majority of 53 in the Commons.

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Govt ‘too scared’ to target long-term goals

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Labour’s ‘mountain to climb’

The SNP will surely dispute the projection they’re on course to lose 29 seats in Scotland, down to just 19. And 38 gains for Sir Ed Davey’s Lib Dems, giving them 49 seats, seems a little optimistic.

Polls like this, however, will intensify the debate among MPs about whether the next election will be like 1992, when Neil Kinnock’s Labour were confident of victory but John Major won by 21 seats, or the 1997 Blair landslide.

Unlike now, when the government wins most Commons votes these days with majorities of around 70, by 1997, Major’s majority had all but disappeared. So, as Sir Keir regularly points out, this time “we have a mountain to climb”.

Mrs Thatcher was right to be sceptical about opinion polls. But Sir Keir can take comfort from the fact that this new poll suggests Labour is on the right path as the party attempts to climb the mountain.

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Tories warned Mark Menzies misuse of funds claims ‘constituted fraud’ but whistleblower told there was no ‘duty’ to report it

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Tories warned Mark Menzies misuse of funds claims 'constituted fraud' but whistleblower told there was no 'duty' to report it

The Conservatives were warned ex-Tory MP Mark Menzies’s alleged misuse of party funds may have constituted fraud but the whistleblower was told there was no duty to report it

Mr Menzies, the MP for Fylde in Lancashire, gave up the Tory whip in the wake of reports in The Times that he misused party funds. He disputes the allegations.

The allegations came about after Mr Menzies former campaign manager, Katie Fieldhouse, spoke to the newspaper.

Mark Menzies pictured in Peru  in 2020
Pic: AP
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Mark Menzies pictured in Peru in 2020. Pic: AP

In a new interview with The Times this evening, Ms Fieldhouse, 78, claims she was told the Conservative Party was aware the allegations were potentially criminal.

She says the Conservative Party’s chief of staff “told me that when they first took over the investigation [from the Whips’ Office] they had consulted solicitors”.

She added: “He told me on the phone, ‘the solicitor said it is fraud but you are not duty-bound to report it because it’s not Conservative Party money’.”

The whistleblower said she was told the decision not to inform the police was made because it was donors’ money and not the party’s.

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A Conservative spokesperson said: “The party is conducting an investigation into the claims made and has been doing so for several months.

“We will of course share any information with the police if they believe it would be helpful to any investigation they decide to undertake.

“Suggestions the party has not been seriously examining this matter are demonstrably false.”

Lancashire Police said today it was “reviewing” information about Mr Menzies after Labour asked for an investigation to take place.

In a statement, the force said: “We can confirm that we have now received a letter detailing concerns around this matter and we are in the process of reviewing the available information in more detail.”

Read more: All the Tory MPs suspended since Sunak became PM

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Ruth Davidson on Mark Menzies allegations

The party’s chief whip, Simon Hart, is said to have been made aware of the claims in January, when the former campaign manager reported what had happened.

Sky News understands there has been an investigation ongoing by Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) since the allegations were first raised, but further information came to light this week and Mr Hart acted immediately.

Speaking tonight, Labour’s chair Anneliese Dodds said: “The Conservative chairman and chief whip must urgently come out of hiding and explain what they knew and what advice they received.

“If, as reported, they or Conservative officials​ were warned about potentially fraudulent activity and chose not to go to the police, this would be indefensible.”

Mr Menzies, who has served as an MP since May 2010, is reported to have phoned his 78-year-old former campaign manager at 3.15am last December, saying he was locked in a flat by “bad people” and needed £5,000 as a matter of “life and death”.

The sum, which rose to £6,500, was eventually paid by his office manager from her personal bank account and subsequently reimbursed from funds raised from donors in an account named Fylde Westminster Group, the newspaper says.

Speaking to Sky News, Ms Fieldhouse said: “I am feeling dreadful because I am a devout Tory and as I have said to everybody else, I reported his actions to the chief whip… it is now the middle of April.

“Come to your own conclusions [about] what is happening.”

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Asked if she was disappointed with the way the complaint was being handled, she said: “Yes.”

Mr Menzies said on Thursday: “I strongly dispute the allegations put to me. I have fully complied with all the rules for declarations. As there is an investigation ongoing I will not be commenting further.”

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Mark Menzies: Tory activist who reported MP over alleged misuse of funds disappointed by party response

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Mark Menzies: Tory activist who reported MP over alleged misuse of funds disappointed by party response

A Tory activist who reported an MP over claims he misused party funds has told Sky News she is disappointed by the way her complaint has been handled.

Mark Menzies voluntarily quit the Conservative parliamentary party this week after a report in The Times claimed he called his ex-campaign manager Katie Fieldhouse, 78, early one day to say he was locked in a flat by “bad people” and needed £5,000 as a matter of “life and death”.

The sum, which rose to £6,500, was eventually paid by his office manager from her personal bank account and subsequently reimbursed from funds raised from donors in an account named Fylde Westminster Group, the newspaper said.

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But despite the incident taking place in December – and Ms Fieldhouse submitting her complaint in January – the Fylde MP had remained part of the parliamentary party and as a trade envoy for the government until the press reports surfaced.

He has now lost the Conservative whip and was suspended as one of Rishi Sunak’s envoys.

Mr Menzies strongly disputes the claims, which also include accusations he used campaign funds to pay his personal medical bills.

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Speaking to Sky News’ Frazer Maude, Ms Fieldhouse said: “I am feeling dreadful because I am a devout Tory and as I have said to everybody else, I reported his actions to the chief whip… it is now the middle of April.

“Come to your own conclusions [about] what is happening.”

Asked if she was disappointed with the way the complaint was being handled, she said: “Yes.”

And asked if Mr Menzies should step down, she added: “It is for his conscience and the party to deal with. I have put my faith in the party, it is for them to deal with it.”

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Mr Sunak was also asked by reporters on Friday whether his former colleague should quit the Commons, and why it had taken until now for the party to act, but he said he would not comment while an investigation was being carried out.

Instead, the prime minister said: “It’s right that Mark Menzies has resigned the Conservative whip. He’s been suspended from his position as a trade envoy whilst the investigations into those allegations continue.

“For our part, I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation while it’s happening and he’s no longer a Conservative MP.”

Meanwhile, the Labour Party has written to Lancashire Police to demand an investigation into allegations of fraud and misconduct in public office.

Leader Sir Keir Starmer told broadcasters that the Conservatives “seem to have sat on their hands” over the allegations.

He added: “If they thought they could sweep this under the carpet somehow they were obviously very mistaken and that is why I think there are very serious questions now that need to be answered – not just by the individual but also by the government on this.”

And the Liberal Democrats have called for the ministerial ethics adviser to investigate chief whip Simon Hart’s handling of the complaint.

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Labour blames ‘shoplifters’ charter’ for surge in retail crime

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Labour blames 'shoplifters' charter' for surge in retail crime

A “shoplifters’ charter” has seen thefts rise significantly – to about one offence every minute – but police are charging fewer people, according to Labour.

The party said data showed a record 402,482 shoplifting offences in England and Wales in the year to September 2023.

However, offences resulting in a police charge fell from 20% to 15% between 2018 and 2023, according to a Freedom of Information request.

Labour said offenders were getting off “scot-free” as the fall had not been matched by a rise in other penalties.

More than 54% of shoplifting offences are also dropped with no suspect identified, according to recent Home Office figures.

Labour partly blamed the situation on a 2014 move to introduce a “low value” shoplifting category for items worth under £200 in total.

Theresa May, then home secretary, brought it in to speed things up and allow police to deal with these offences by post.

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But Labour and others, such as the British Retail Consortium, said it meant officers have deprioritised shoplifting.

The rise in shoplifting and attacks on staff have caused some retailers to lock away – or put security tags on – everyday products such as meat, butter, chocolate and coffee.

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Shoplifter ransacks Co-op

Co-op’s food business lost £33m in just six months last year as shoplifting cases surged.

A recent British Retail Consortium survey said the number of annual customer thefts across the UK had doubled to 16 million – far higher than the Home Office data.

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Shadow home secretary Yvette Copper said Labour would change the law as criminals are “getting away with it and more local businesses are paying the price”.

“The Conservative government has decimated neighbourhood policing, leaving our town centres unprotected, and they are still refusing to get rid of the £200 rule, which is encouraging repeat offending and organised gangs of shoplifters,” said Ms Cooper.

“Labour will scrap the Tories’ shoplifters’ charter and bring in a community policing guarantee, with 13,000 more neighbourhood police and PCSOs to crack down on shoplifting and keep the public safe.”

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Home Office minister Chris Philp said the “reality” was people in Labour-run areas were 20% more likely to be a victim of shoplifting, and 40% more likely to be a victim of crime, than those in Conservative areas.

“This month, Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives announced that serial or abusive shoplifters will face tougher punishments and we are making assault of a retail worker a standalone criminal offence,” Mr Philp added.

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