Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Labour frets as Cameron stalks centre ground
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The Independent Online

When Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994, the Tories could not agree whether he was the devil in their ill-fated "demon eyes" advert or the "Bambi" portrayed by the cartoonists. As a result, their attacks on him were discredited.

As David Cameron, the Tory leader, admitted in an important speech this week: "We made terrible strategic and tactical mistakes. Sometimes we tried to claim that Labour had not really changed - that it was still the same old Labour Party. Other times we said that Labour was stealing our clothes - but that people would prefer the real thing."

Today, Labour frets over Mr Cameron. Mr Blair knows he is the most effective of the five Tory leaders he has opposed since 1994. Instead of responding to Labour's colonisation of the centre ground by lurching to the right, Mr Cameron declared in his speech that he will not be pushed off the centre ground by Labour or his right-wing Tory critics.

So Labour is unsure how to puncture the Cameron bubble, and Mr Blair discussed tactics with Labour backbench shop stewards on Wednesday. Some tribal Labour MPs want to brand Mr Cameron a "Tory toff". They recall that Gordon Brown told the Labour conference last September that the Tories were "the same old boys network" and "Cameron - their only new face - is an Old Etonian".

Just as the Tories found it hard to attack Mr Blair because he looked like a conservative, the public-school educated Mr Blair is in no position to question Mr Cameron's background. Nor is Mr Brown likely to reignite the class war when he becomes Prime Minister. Labour's private polling shows the voters regard Mr Cameron as a "toff" but are not put off by it.

A more fruitful line of fire is to point out his inconsistencies and policy U-turns. The phrase "flip flop" sticks to Mr Cameron and damages him. No surprise, then, that Mr Blair has started to deploy this tactic during Prime Minister's Questions.

It is still early days and Labour strategists admit they are trying out different lines of attack on the Tory leader to see what works. They have a sneaking respect for Mr Cameron. The parallels with Mr Blair circa 1994 are striking: a small clique mounts a coup in a party that is out of touch with the voters, and bounces it into policy changes it swallows because it is desperate to return to power.

Mr Blair forced his party to accept the central tenets of Thatcherism. Now Mr Cameron admits that New Labour was right to add social justice to the economic efficiency achieved by Margaret Thatcher. He embraces much of New Labour's approach instead of looking for differences in the safe Tory havens of tax cuts, immigration and Europe, which cut little ice with the public when his predecessors tried it.

As they chase each other's tails around the crowded centre ground, the two big parties claim they have won the ideological battle. Mr Cameron told the Demos think tank in his speech: "We knew how to win the battle of ideas with Old Labour. We did not know how to deal with our own victory in that battle of ideas."

Oh no, reply the Blairites. Mr Cameron's decision to pitch his tent on the middle ground shows that New Labour has triumphed. "New Labour has won," said Alan Milburn, the Blairite cheerleader. "Just as Margaret Thatcher - and before her, Clem Attlee - reshaped the political landscape, so too has Tony Blair."

So who's right? Both sides have a point. The New Tories say Labour had to ditch its principles to accommodate Thatcherism, while they merely have to apply their traditional values to today's world. The Tories are still in business because they have modernised themselves down the generations.

New Labour replies that the Tories are dumping a policy a day; even Mr Cameron's language is eerily similar to Mr Blair's. (He told Demos his aspirations were "for a vibrant open economy, a decent society in which no one is left behind, and where everyone who needs it gets a second chance ... to see happiness, quality of life and environmental sustainability as central goals of progressive government.")

According to the Blairites, the Government's biggest achievement has been to ensure Labour's values are shared by the country, pointing to public support for the 2002 rise in national insurance to fund the health service.

Mr Cameron says that one "last battle" remains - to replace Labour's "short-term bureaucratic fixes with long-term sustainable solutions". His pitch is that he would complete Mr Blair's unfinished business, the reforms blocked by Mr Brown. Which is why Mr Blair and Mr Brown are determined to be joined at the hip, whatever the Chancellor's private doubts about some of the reforms.

The parallels with 1994 can be overdone. When Mr Blair became Labour leader, his party was already miles ahead in the opinion polls. Today, the two parties are neck and neck.

In 1997, the country was crying out for change. For all the disappointments under Labour since, there is not yet a similar clamour. The political obituaries will be kinder to Mr Blair than the day-to-day headlines he gets now.

As two men strive to be "Blair's heir", Mr Cameron's task is to create a "time for change" mood, Mr Brown's to offer continuity with the good bits of Blairism while changing some of the bad bits. This battle will decide the next election.