Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said that chief executives had delivered a 'thumbs down' to the government and, in particular, to health secretary Patricia Hewitt.

Most worrying was the finding that two-thirds of those surveyed think short-term decisions based on finances will cause patients to suffer, he added.

The results showed that a 'large majority' of chief executives endorsed the Conservatives' wish
to take politicians out of the day-to-day management of the health service and create an independent NHS board charged with commissioning care for patients. The same policy has been mooted by chancellor Gordon Brown.

The views expressed in the survey also supported Conservative policies aimed at creating a level playing field between NHS and independent providers, he said.

He added: 'The need for change in the NHS is clear from this poll; change to enable chief executives to be freer to meet the needs of patients and deliver long-term improvements.'

Providing his comments via a statement, Mr Lansley did not respond to the finding that Gordon Brown's was a more popular choice to be next prime minister than Conservative leader David Cameron.

Some respondents hoped Mr Cameron would take market-driven reforms further than Labour has. Several others agreed there would be less red tape if Labour lost the next general election.