The Week In Politics: The Cameron project is lacking Tory support

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Question: which prominent British politician did not have a holiday this summer? Answer: not Gordon Brown, who managed just four hours before the first foot-and-mouth outbreak. The one who had no break at all was Oliver Letwin, the man in charge of the Conservative Party's wholesale policy review.

He was charged with the Herculean task of shaping the hundreds of thousands of words spewed out by six policy groups into the Tories' agenda for the next general election. When David Cameron launched his policy review, it seemed a good idea. What better way to show the public that the "nasty party" had turned nice? But the exercise has turned into something of a monster.

The Tories insist that it has helped them to set the agenda. But it has also produced headlines that have been confusing, contradictory and damaging. The Tories say they will not offer "upfront tax cuts" but hint that they would like to cut inheritance tax and stamp duty. At the same time, they want to impose new green taxes. Mr Cameron's flip-flop over grammar schools thickened the fog.

My guess is that voters are pretty confused about what the Tories stand for. Some probably believe that all the ideas proposed during the review are official party policy, that a Tory government would charge them to park their car at the supermarket and impose a hefty green tax if they take more than one flight abroad each year.

Such ideas are now being dropped before they do any more damage. The next stage of the policy review, to be launched at the Tory conference in Blackpool starting tomorrow, is to say which recommendations are being ditched and which ones are runners for the manifesto.

Mr Cameron is adamant that his review was not a mistake, that it's good to show the party is debating new ideas. Perhaps there is still time to turn the fuzzy policy picture into a clear and coherent one. And time is short as Mr Brown ponders whether to call an election this autumn.

The Tory leader is cool in a crisis and will need to be in the next few days. The momentum is with Gordon Brown who, without looking tribal and barely mentioning the Tories, staged a successful Labour conference this week designed to make Mr Cameron's trip to the seaside as miserable as possible.

Mr Brown has cleverly positioned himself as the natural heir to Baroness Thatcher, a neat contrast to Mr Cameron who once rashly described himself as the "heir to Blair." Now the Tories are telling us that Mr Cameron is the real heir to Lady Thatcher after all. It is a bit late. The Cameroons deny, "trashing" the Thatcher legacy but they have distanced themselves from her. It was the leader's wife Samantha who coined his slogan "there is such a thing as society, it's just not the same as the state," a rejection of both selfish Thatcherism and big state Brownism.

It doesn't look so clever when Lady T takes tea with Mr Brown. Remarkably, Mr Cameron has not had a meeting with Lady Thatcher since he became Tory leader; they have met six times at receptions and dinners but not one-to-one. Their two offices discussed a meeting on several occasions but it was never bolted down. Some Thatcher admirers have no time for the Cameron project and are happy to make trouble for him.

Another obstacle placed by Mr Brown has been to pepper every speech and statement he makes with the word "change" in an attempt to convince voters they have had a change of government. Mr Cameron will try to grab hold of the "change" mantle next week. His conference slogan is "it's time for change", his pitch that Mr Brown cannot be the change. After watching the PM's Bournemouth speech on TV in his Commons office, Mr Cameron described it as "dull and uninspiring" saying he had not displayed a coherent vision for the country.

Mr Cameron draws comfort from polling showing that, despite the favourable headline figures for Labour, people have not really made up their minds about Mr Brown. The Tory leader will present the choice facing the country as between "change" and "more of the same," presenting himself as the future. It won't be easy but Mr Cameron believes it can be done.

He also has problems in his own party. Not enough people in it believe in his project. When Tony Blair changed Labour, plenty in his party had doubts but were prepared to swallow them to win and keep power. The Tory doubters are much less supportive of Mr Cameron.

I doubt that the Tories will implode next week, as Labour hopes. But some senior Tories may well sit on their hands rather than rally behind him. They don't want to be blamed for rocking the boat but have little intention of giving the captain the loyalty and support he needs and deserves. That is ominous.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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