Cameron up for the fight as Brown ponders dangers of buoyant Tories

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Indy Politics

The biggest cheer for David Cameron came at the end of what had been billed as a make-or-break speech to his party conference. To growing applause, the Conservative leader declared: "Call that election. We will fight. Britain will win".

It is a sign of the success of his party's conference that in the heady atmosphere that surrounds a leader's speech the declaration of war sounded credible. At the beginning of the week if Mr Cameron had called for an election his party would have applauded nervously. Yesterday they responded with genuine glee as their leader made his clarion call.

Mr Cameron passed one crucial test of leadership as he delivered his speech. He proved he was calm under fire. The Conservative leader spoke for nearly one hour without a text, pausing during the applause to consult notes placed at a nearby table. Speaking on the same stage in Blackpool where he transformed his prospects in the Conservative leadership contest two years ago, he decided once more to perform without the comforting support of an autocue. On this occasion the stakes were higher still. Mr Cameron took to the stage hoping to reshape the political landscape with his discursive style, aware that in less than a week's time he could be fighting an election campaign.

The stylistic act of boldness was emblematic. He has kept his cool not just on the stage in Blackpool but throughout the week in the face of bleak polls at the start of the conference and fears that his party was in a recklessly febrile mood. As it turned out, the party has united in the face of a possible autumn election. Mr Cameron's style was distinctive, but the substance was familiar.

Although the terms "new" and "change" peppered the speech, his task yesterday was to make sense of what he had been saying for the past two years, to pull together the strands that had, at times, appeared contradictory and incoherent. In the broadest terms, he succeeded. As he made his case, the outlines of the Cameron project became clearer. He did not seek to ditch Conservatism, but to project the values of the Conservative Party in new ways.

In doing so he moved tenaciously on to policy areas that were previously associated with parties on the centre left. There were sections on the environment and poverty. At one point there was a brave, but under-explored attempt to link security with the environment, both areas where in different ways, even most Conservatives accept that the state must play a role. The NHS was highlighted.

He also stressed that issues relating to immigration must be addressed in ways that were sensitive and humane. But while he claimed repeatedly that he was moving away from the "old politics" his solutions were more orthodox, to the extent that his audience of traditional activists in the hall fully approved of what they heard.

He repeated his support for a smaller state, tax cuts, being tougher still on benefit claimants. Above all he hailed the family and conventional marriage as the key to addressing crime, poverty and social justice. At one point he argued that the family, presumably the conventional family, was "the best welfare system of all". In other areas he pledged to scrap the Human Rights Act and veto the latest EU treaty.

Mr Cameron has been making these points for the past 18 months, but some in his party had refused to listen, mistaking him for a left-of-centre impostor. Armed with these policies Mr Cameron is in no danger of being invited to join the so- called progressive consensus.

More worrying for the Conservatives, the policies raise many unanswered questions. Mr Cameron insisted that the NHS must be answerable to patients and doctors and not politicians. Yet while the politicians are responsible for raising the cash to pay for the NHS the lines of accountability will be more complex than he suggested. Furthermore, the interests of doctors and patients are not always the same.

Mr Cameron called on schools to be set free, but was rigidly prescriptive in his speech about what should be taught to raise standards. He was Blairite in relation to reform of the public services, hailing choice, diversity and innovation. Yet he opposed the closure of some district hospitals that are a consequence of Blairite reforms.

There were hints of higher public spending on defence, as well as the existing commitments to meet the Government's spending plans. At the same time, there were promises of more tax cuts for businesses.

In return for tax cuts, he called on companies to agree to more flexible working hours. He did not say what would happen if companies refused to oblige. Presumably, nothing would happen as Mr Cameron called for less regulation rather than more. He urged nobly that there must be more help for those who leave school without qualifications. Yet he argued that schools must have the right to exclude pupils without saying what should happen to them once they have been expelled. The contradictions of the arguments were obscured by the style of the delivery. They would not survive the intense scrutiny of an election campaign, whenever it comes.

So ends the strangest conference season for many years, one in which the contours of British politics were reshaped as a result of pre-election fever. The Labour conference was a gathering that became giddy on intoxicating opinion polls, which in turn fuelled misjudged talk about an early election. The Labour conference was a gift to the Conservatives. Mr Cameron might have faced a febrile conference. Instead, he staged a pre-election rally in the bizarre circumstances where there might not be an election.

Gordon Brown has to decide, finally, whether to go the country. As I thought he would have been crazy to do so two weeks ago when he commanded the political stage and enjoyed a largely uncritical press it goes without saying that I consider such a move even crazier now.

The past few days has shown how quickly the political mood can change. Suddenly, the Conservatives do not appear to be a divided rabble, and Mr Brown looks more like an orthodox politician, no longer the consensual father of the nation but making moves for electoral advantage. That is what political leaders do when an election is looming. By definition elections are intense partisan events. But for Mr Brown the stance is at odds with his carefully cultivated prime ministerial image. If he goes to the country next week he will be making a move with maximum risk and minimum gain.

But has the past three weeks, and in particular the past few days, changed the political mood in the longer term? This is more difficult to answer. The Conservatives have been in a bubble this week, too. As in Bournemouth last week, the calm has been deceptive. Conservative divisions over tax, Europe, education and some social issues were repressed rather than fully purged. Some of their policies will fall apart when Mr Brown gets to work on them. Their purpose as a party, although becoming clearer, still eludes crisp definition.

Even so, Mr Cameron has displayed some agile political skills in a way that Labour would be foolish to underestimate. He is an engaging political personality who has the knack of presenting traditional Conservative ideas in new ways.

All will depend on the opinion polls in the next few days, but I suspect Mr Cameron will be able to claim next week that he stopped the mighty Mr Brown from calling a November election.

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