Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

When will the real David Cameron stand up?
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The Independent Online

According to the Tories, Gordon Brown has been inviting prominent Tory donors to Downing Street receptions to sound them out about working for the Government on their pet subjects.

The Tories claim several of their clan have spurned Mr Brown's advances. But the Prime Minister's schmoozing paid off when Johan Eliasch, the boss of the Head sports equipment firm, confirmed yesterday he would become an adviser to the Government on the environment. For good measure (from Mr Brown's point of view), he has resigned as a deputy Tory treasurer and will let his party membership lapse.

Mr Brown has developed a devastating new political weapon. Recruiting people from other parties as advisers is not as spectacular as a full-scale defection to Labour. But it sends the same unmistakable message to the public: remarkably, after 10 years in power, the tide is still with Labour.

In a speech yesterday, David Cameron argued that the Tory values of freedom and giving people more control over their lives meant that 'this is our time.' But if the Tories were seen as serious contenders for power, they would be successfully wooing defectors from the Liberal Democrats or even Labour, just as Tony Blair landed Tory MPs such as Shaun Woodward (now Northern Ireland Secretary) and Alan Howarth before the 1997 election.

For all his Herculean efforts to anchor the Tory tent to the centre ground, Mr Cameron has collected only a coachload of councillors from other parties. Mr Brown has a much bigger tent and it is still expanding. In the past week, he also beckoned Tory MPs Patrick Mercer and John Bercow into it.

Mr Cameron believes the Prime Minister spends most of his waking hours plotting how to outmanoeuvre the Tories. In case voters start to feel the same, the Liberal Democrat MP Matthew Taylor was also signed up. " Operation Hoover", as Blair aides used to call their drive to sweep up other parties, is back. It may be a ruthless use of the Prime Minister's power of patronage. Mr Cameron may complain about "low politics". But it is highly successful.

It should have been a good week for Mr Cameron. His frenetic activity since he returned from holiday (dubbed "Operation Don't Panic" by Tory wags) seemed to have paid off. He sharpened his language on law and order and raised issues such as immigration and Europe which he had previously eschewed as old Tory tunes that had played badly at the last three elections. The result was to narrow Labour's lead in the opinion polls, making it harder for Mr Brown to call a an autumn election.

For all Mr Cameron's taunts of "bring it on", the Tories don't want a snap poll. "We are scared of an autumn election," one insider admitted. Mr Brown senses this, and it is probably one reason why he has not entirely ruled one out (even if it now looks less likely).

Mr Cameron is convinced the Prime Minister is not the master strategist portrayed by some commentators but a man obsessed with short-term tactics. So, in a speech on Tuesday promising "a new politics" without "gimmicks", Mr Brown performs a stunt by announcing the recruitment of Mr Mercer, Mr Bercow and Mr Taylor.

The feeling between the two party leaders is mutual. Labour believes Mr Cameron's short term poll boost will carry a heavy long term price. The media has got the impression that Mr Cameron is doing what he vowed he never would: repeating the mistakes of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard by pandering to the Tory "core vote". It dovetails neatly with Labour's claims that Tories are lurching to the right.

Mr Cameron is adamant that he is not doing this, and that it is not " right-wing" to talk about issues people care about. He has a point. His message on "social breakdown" is a much more promising line than his fuzzy concept of "social responsibility", which will not get them raising their glasses in the Dog and Duck. "Social breakdown" seems more relevant after the killing of Rhys Jones in Liverpool, although the Tory leader should resist the temptation to go over the top, as he did by talking about "anarchy in the UK".

The danger is that the Tory ziz-zagging confuses voters who don't know what the party stands for. It is also raising tensions inside the party itself.

Mr Cameron has been criticised by Michael Ancram, a traditionalist, who accused him of trashing Margaret Thatcher's legacy, and Michael Portillo, an arch-moderniser, worried that he is losing his nerve.

Mr Blair was often accused of being all things to all men, but at least the voters knew where he stood. The same is now being said in Tory circles about Mr Cameron. As one Tory MP put it: "David has upset everyone, modernisers and traditionalists alike. Neither side knows whether he is one of them."

When will the real David Cameron stand up? The answer is next month in Blackpool, where he will have to make the most important speech of his leadership at the Tory conference, fusing the millions of words in his party's policy review into something that will play in the Dog and Duck. The man in No 10 will be watch-ing, doubtless planning to throw a few more obstacles in his opponent's path.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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