Review of the year: The Tories

A party galvanised by youth
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Indy Politics

If anyone had predicted, a year ago, that the Tories would end 2005 ahead in the polls, thanks to a 39-year-old leader with fewer than five years' parliamentary experience under his belt, the men in white coats would have been summoned.

The Tories' prospects have been so transformed that Labour's third decisive victory on 5 May has become but a distant memory. It is hard to recall the dire straits in which the Tories began the year. Flatlining in the polls, they suffered the ignominy, in January, of the defection to Labour of Robert Jackson, the MP for Wantage. But Mr Jackson was standing down at the election, so the bad headlines proved to be only a minor irritant for the party leader, Michael Howard.

He was busy concentrating on refining the "dog whistle" issues, such as immigration and illegal gypsy sites, dreamed up for him by Lynton Crosby, his Australian policy guru. Mr Crosby's influence in the run-up to the general election was to prove decisive in the handling of the dismissal both from the front bench and from Parliament of Howard Flight, a hitherto little-known Tory MP, on the eve of the election campaign. Mr Crosby's aggressive style assisted Mr Howard in the enforcement of unity and discipline that became the principal achievement of his two-year caretaker leadership.

Mr Flight made a speech, recorded by Labour spies, at a private dinner, suggesting that Tory tax cuts would eventually turn out to be much greater than the £4bn publicly promised publicly by Oliver Letwin, the then Shadow Chancellor. Mr Howard was concerned that Labour would use this speech to tell voters that it meant that there was a Tory secret agenda to cut public services by £30bn over the lifetime of a Parliament. Mr Flight immediately apologised for his gaffe and resigned his junior front-bench post.

The "dog whistle" issues during the early part of the year provided the background against which the Tory manifesto "Are you thinking what we're thinking? - It's time for action" was published. This was a short document that distilled a populist message around five themes: more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, school discipline and controlled immigration. But the election campaign became dominated by Mr Howard's personal concentration on immigration that overshadowed the other messages.

The election result was another disappointment. The Tories barely increased their share of the vote over 1997 and 2001. They polled 33 per cent but managed to win an extra 32 seats - largely thanks to an increase in the Lib Dem vote in Labour-held marginals.

Mr Howard announced his "long goodbye" the day after the election and set in train a leadership campaign that was to last seven months. But first there was a cack-handed attempt to change the rules for the leadership election by restricting the franchise solely to MPs. The summer saw chaotic rows between MPs and the party hierarchy and the issues of discipline and control of MPs became entwined with the leadership rules. It was not until the week before the party conference that the previous rules allowing the membership to retain the final say between the top two candidates were finally confirmed. This was a defeat for Mr Howard but, perversely, it enabled the party conference a week later to become a positive media showcase for the party and all the leadership contenders.

From the moment of Mr Howard's announcement of his intention to step down, his shadow home affairs spokesman, David Davis, became the favourite to succeed. Mr Davis had successfully seen off the Lib Dem attempt, in their failed 'decapitation' strategy, to unseat him in his marginal Yorkshire constituency and, although up to a dozen other rivals tested the water during the summer, he was assumed to be unbeatable. In late August Kenneth Clarke launched his third bid to lead the party and temporarily monopolised the silly season media coverage as the only credible rival to Mr Davis.

Days before the Tories gathered in Blackpool Mr Davis and Mr Cameron launched their respective campaigns within an hour of each other. Mr Davis's launch was wooden and pedestrian compared to an exciting and slick performance from Mr Cameron - who spoke without notes. The media were immediately excited and looked forward to a repeat performance at the conference. Mr Cameron's conference speech excited the enfranchised membership while Mr Davis bombed.

The series of parliamentary ballots established Mr Cameron as the new favourite and, after six weeks of hustings and TV debates with Mr Davis, he won a decisive mandate to change the Tories. Mr Cameron is a blank canvas but the sense of momentum suggests the outlines of a serious Tory revival that has genuinely unnerved Labour - especially Gordon Brown - for the first time since 1992.

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