The Year in Review: British politics

The battle of ideas isn't over
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The Independent Online

It was a roller-coaster year for the Conservative Party and its leader, David Cameron. His lows were so low that his future in his post was being openly questioned by his own party this autumn. But after an effective fightback, he ended the year at a remarkably high point, able to look ahead to 2008 with confidence. During the low points, Cameron was not in command of his own party. His nadir was a bruising row with Tory traditionalists over his refusal to promise more grammar schools. It was the wrong issue on which to take on a party reluctant to swallow his modernising medicine. He had to back down and move David Willetts, his education spokesman, to another post.

Gordon Brown's solid start as Prime Minister added to the doubts about Cameron. But he fought back on returning from his summer holiday. His warnings about "social breakdown" carried more weight after the killing of Rhys Jones, an 11-year-old boy, in Liverpool. This mini-recovery was achieved by resorting to the traditional Tory tunes of law and order, immigration and Europe. The Cameroons insisted that this was always part of their plan after showing the voters that the party had changed by trumpeting issues such as the environment.

The summer offensive wasn't enough to stop the internal sniping at Cameron. With his critics plotting, he faced a very difficult party conference in Blackpool in October. But Brown let him off the hook. By allowing speculation that he might call a November general election run riot at Labour's conference the previous week, he ensured that the Tories rallied behind their leader.

The pivotal moment in the political year was 1 October, when George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, told the Tory conference that the party would raise the inheritance-tax threshold to 1m. It turned the tide, proving popular in opinion polls and scaring Brown off an election. The Tories insist that they were ready for one; the truth is that they breathed a huge sigh of relief when it was called off.

Brown lost the initiative after his non-election and a grateful Cameron grasped his opportunity. As he prepared for his second anniversary as Tory leader this month, he was able to claim that the "tide of ideas" had turned decisively in his party's favour, as it did for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Tony Blair in 1997.

His claim is premature. There have been no big-name defections to the Tories (in fact, it was a Tory MP, Quentin Davies, who went over to Labour). Remarkably, the Tories have not gained a seat in a parliamentary by-election for 25 years. In Ealing Southall in July, they came a humiliating third, their hand-picked candidate Tony Lit perhaps illustrating the limitations of a Cameron strategy based on style rather than substance.

True, the Tories end the year with a commanding lead in the polls, enough to secure a hung parliament and possibly overall victory. But senior Tories admit privately that the party should consistently be on 45 per cent rather than 40 per cent, given Brown's sudden fall from grace.

The explanation must be that, while voters have turned away from Labour, they are not yet flocking to the Tories in the way they did after Blair became Labour leader. Cameron certainly advanced his case to be the next Prime Minister in the past 12 months, but the signs are that the public are not yet convinced that the Tories are a government-in-waiting.

All the same, they now have a golden opportunity to win over the doubters. "People are listening to us; our goods are in the shop window," said one Shadow Cabinet minister.

And the Tories can claim that they ticked several important boxes in 2007. They made progress on policy, even though Cameron inevitably had to pick and mix from the sometimes contradictory reports drawn up in a wholesale review.

His front-bench team also made forward strides, notably Osborne, who grew in confidence and moved from being a leader's right-hand man to a likely future leader.

In other areas, the Cameroons admit, further work is required. The calibre of some frontbenchers is not as high as it might be. The leadership wants all of them to be attack dogs who sink their teeth into Labour and promote a distinctive alternative at the same time.

The policy agenda also requires more than a little fine-tuning. There is some "clear blue water" with Labour, but more is needed. The overall picture is still hazy and requires greater definition over the next year. If the Tories remain ahead in the polls, their programme will face much greater media scrutiny. Brown believes he has plenty of ammunition up his sleeve, not least over how the Tories would pay for their spending commitments, on which they will need greater discipline.

The challenge for 2008 will be to maintain the momentum of the past few months. The danger is that some Tories will assume that the next election is won and rest on their laurels. They should remember that, because of the electoral system, the party will need a huge lead in the parties' share of the vote to be sure of victory. "We can't just assume it's going to fall into our lap because it's our turn," said one close Cameron ally. "We have got to earn it."

A safety-first approach may not be enough. To misquote Tony Blair, the Tories are best when they are boldest, as Osborne's conference coup proved. Cameron will also need to show the voters that he is in control of a party that embraces, rather than tolerates, his changes. He cannot afford to fail another test like grammar schools.

Brown's non-election fiasco has given Cameron a second chance. He ends the year on a second honeymoon. He has got to make the most of it, as he may not get another one.

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