Gordon Brown has ordered Labour to portray David Cameron as a right-wing "wolf in sheep's clothing" in an attempt to close the Conservative Party's growing lead in the opinion polls.
After months of contradictory attacks on the Tories which have misfired, the Cabinet agreed this week that Labour must spell out the dangers of a Tory government to counteract Mr Cameron's "time for change" message at the next election.
Mr Brown's edict is a rebuke to ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, who have recognised that the Conservatives have changed under Mr Cameron's leadership. They argue that they are reflecting what the public believes.
In an interview published today, Mr Purnell takes a conciliatory line towards the rebel Labour MPs who are calling for Mr Brown to face a leadership contest. He told New Statesman magazine: "I think it would be ridiculous to pretend that you can't complain when you're worried. I mean, I'm worried that we're 20 points behind. I'm not going to condemn people or question their motives. [But] I don't agree with what they did."
The Tories have passed the 50 per cent mark for the first time since Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister in 1988, according to an Ipsos MORI poll last night. It put the Tories on 52 per cent, Labour on 24 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 12 per cent.
But Mr Brown will be boosted from a ComRes poll of 125 Labour councillors for today's Local Government Chronicle showing that 61 per cent believe he can lead the party to election victory. Some 27 per cent believe Labour will lose under him while 12 per cent are undecided. If Mr Brown is ousted, Mr Miliband and the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, (both on 23 per cent) are favoured as his successor.
On another day of feverish speculation at Westminster, Eric Joyce, parliamentary aide to the Business Secretary, John Hutton, denied reports that he planned to resign after next week's Labour conference.
However, several ministers and aides are thought likely to quit if Labour loses the Glenrothes by-election, expected in late October or early November, and Mr Brown refuses to stand down.
Ministers admit privately that Labour has struggled to land blows on Mr Cameron because they have been unable to agree on a consistent line of attack. There is now said to be a consensus that Labour will fail to warn voters about the risks of a Tory government if it says Mr Cameron is vague, has no policies or is no different to Labour after accepting much of its agenda.
Mr Brown told Labour's national executive committee on Tuesday: "What we see is that their [the Tories'] brand may be new, their PR expensive and their rhetoric modelled on Labour's, but when you look at their actual policy plans they are very similar to the old Conservatives of the past. They may be spending a lot of money on advertising but behind the PR lies a nightmare scenario of cutting public services to give 3,000 of the richest people in the country tax cuts."
The Prime Minister added: "Over the coming long 18-month haul we will move from this being a referendum on us to people making a real choice between us and the Conservatives – real progressive values and the right answers for the future versus old Conservative attitudes masked by PR and branding."
Some ministers are said to have been unimpressed when the new strategy was discussed by the Cabinet. One questioned why it was not discussing Labour's unpopularity rather than focusing on the Tories. Others later described the session as "excruciating", "awful" and "an embarrassment", claiming that some members were barely listening to Mr Brown's presentation.
Labour's attempts to attack the Tories
David Miliband, Foreign Secretary
"The problem with David Cameron is he is a conservative, not a radical. He doesn't share a restlessness for change. He may be likeable and sometimes hard to disagree with, but he is empty. He is a politician of the status quo – even a status quo he consistently voted against – not change."
James Purnell, Work and Pensions Secretary
"David Cameron is not progressive. He is harking back to an earlier Tory tradition, of Peel and Macmillan – that of being conservative with a small 'c'. The Conservatives wouldn't have changed Britain in the way that we have over the last 10 years.
Charles Clarke, former Home Secretary
"There should be no doubt that David Cameron, in his way, represents the same kind of threat to ordinary lives as did Margaret Thatcher. His opportunism and public relations politics are designed to hide an ideology just as isolationist and backward-looking as any of his predecessors."
Gordon Brown, Prime Minister
"When they move on from PR to policies they show themselves not to be progressives but conservatives. Take their flagship tax policy, which gives a £1bn tax cut to the 3,000 richest estates. Take education: cuts in Sure Start, new school building plans, maintenance allowances; and a lack of commitment to staying on until 18. Take health, where they would remove our commitment to GP weekend and evening opening hours and scrap targets for being seen for cancer in two weeks, getting surgery within 18 weeks and being seen in A & E in less than four hours."Reuse content