George Osborne has been identified as the government's weak link in a fresh poll showing that nearly half of voters believe he should be removed as chancellor in the forthcoming cabinet reshuffle.
Amid a growing chorus among Conservative MPs for the prime minister to take the bold step of offering Osborne another high-profile cabinet post, the chancellor's weakness is highlighted in the latest Guardian/ICM poll which shows he has a net job satisfaction rate of minus 32 points.
The prime minister, who is expected to consult aides on the reshuffle when he takes a short break from his Cornwall holiday to attend the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games in London on Wednesday, is planning a shakeup that will go beyond the middle and junior ranks of his government.
Aides say the changes to the cabinet will involve more than "tinkering" and could happen as soon as next week.
Senior Tory figures, who are calling in private for Osborne to swap with the foreign secretary William Hague, are likely to seize on the poll which shows the chancellor is seen as one of the weaker members of the cabinet. Nearly half (48%) of voters say he should lose his job in the reshuffle. This rises to 52% among the over 65s and 53% among those aged between 35 and 64 – the age groups that are most likely to vote.
More than a third (39%) of those who voted Conservative in 2010 believe Osborne should be moved. This rises to 60% among Labour voters and 62% among Liberal Democrat voters.
The chancellor has now overtaken Nick Clegg at the bottom of the rankings for poor job satisfaction.
Osborne has a ranking of minus 32 points compared with minus 26 for the deputy prime minister. David Cameron is on minus 12 points, just ahead of Ed Miliband on minus 13 points.
Of voters who supported the Tories in 2010, 44% believe Osborne is doing a bad job, with 43% saying he is doing a good job (43%).
This is in sharp contrast to the prime minister. More than two thirds (67%) of Conservative voters in 2010 believe he is doing a good job compared with 25% of those who believe Cameron is doing a bad job.
The difficult statistics for Osborne come as a growing number of senior Tories say the prime minister will only be able to refresh his government if he moves, but does not sack, Osborne.
Some MPs are saying that he should do a job swap with Hague who enjoys stronger support in the poll. This found that just over a fifth (21%) of voters believe the foreign secretary should lose his job in the reshuffle.
One senior figure told the Guardian last week that a failure to move Osborne would simply end up "delaying the inevitable" by a year. The chancellor's position was not helped by the centre right Centre for Policy Studies which argued in a pamphlet on Monday that he would struggle to meet his deficit reduction plan, the cornerstone of the government's economic strategy.
But Cameron is widely expected to keep Osborne in his post for two broad reasons. First, the chancellor is his closest cabinet ally who plays an indispensable role in the day-to-day running of the government and in setting the broader strategy in the run up to the next general election.
Second, as a keen student of Margaret Thatcher, Cameron believes that changing a chancellor midway through a parliament would send a dangerous signal to the markets. The one time Thatcher chose to move her chancellor was after the 1983 general election when she appointed Sir Geoffrey Howe as foreign secretary. The only time she appointed a chancellor midway through a chancellor was in 1989 when Nigel Lawson resigned.
One senior Tory said: "Margaret Thatcher did not have to move her chancellor in her first term because she appointed the right person in the first place.
"George Osborne only became shadow chancellor in 2005 because David Cameron turned it down on the grounds that he was too young. The prime minister is five years older than George who got the job at the age of 33. That was ridiculous."
Osborne's aides are likely to dismiss the poll on the grounds that, if 48% of voters have called for him to be moved, then 52% have not expressed an opinion.
An ally of the chancellor said of the calls for Osborne to removed: "In the middle of very difficult economic times that is what happens. But that does not mean the plan is wrong."
The poll found that 15% of voters said none of the six cabinet ministers identified in the poll should be moved in the reshuffle. Just over a 10th (11%) said they did not know.
The most unpopular cabinet minister after Osborne was Andrew Lansley – 37% of those polled believe he should lose his job as health secretary. He was followed by Michael Gove (36%), Kenneth Clarke (28%), Jeremy Hunt (24%) and William Hague (21%).
The poll confirmed that Labour still retains a strong lead over the Conservatives. Labour and the Conservatives remain unchanged on last month's Guardian/ICM poll on 39% and 34% respectively. The Liberal Democrats are up one point on 15% and the other parties are down one point on 12%.
ICM Research interviewed a random sample of 1,006 adults aged 18+ by telephone on 24-26 August 2012. Interviews were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.
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