Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Tory leader is stealing Brown's best tunes
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The Independent Online

"Thank God he's going." As Tony Blair made his brilliant farewell speech to the Labour conference, a politician watching on TV sent this text message to friends. It was not a Labour leftie or a pal of Gordon Brown, but George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor and David Cameron's right-hand man.

Of course, it now suits the Conservatives and our Tory-dominated media to belatedly build up Mr Blair after spending nine years trying to knock him down. What better way to undermine his successor? But Mr Osborne meant it. For all the Prime Minister's unpopularity, his speech reminded the Tories why they would rather not fight him at the next election.

Labour's conference in Manchester was surreal. A superficial unity was maintained; just. But beneath the surface, it was fizzing with bile, most of it directed at Mr Brown by his own side. Yesterday, William Hill issued a press release headlined: "Bookies say punters want 'anyone but Brown' to be leader." What a surprise.

In 1994, Mr Blair and Mr Brown agreed it would damage their modernising cause if they ran against each other. Today, some Blairites actively seek a candidate to run against Mr Brown. The message that sends is that they do not trust him to carry forward the New Labour banner. They are playing a dangerous game. Mr Brown remains the clear front-runner to win the Labour crown. The attacks on him mean it may be made of thorns.

Mr Blair's determination to hang on until next summer could mean up to nine months of navel-gazing. The danger is that the Government will drift aimlessly along, its work eclipsed by a long and possibly bitter beauty contest.

Labour's problems provide a perfect backdrop for Mr Cameron as his first conference as Tory leader begins in Bournemouth tomorrow. The Tories have made remarkable progress in 10 months. Just before Mr Cameron became leader, the party's focus groups found that, when people were asked to choose an image that reminded them of the Conservative Party, they opted for an old red telephone box. By this summer, they selected a picture of the globe to represent the environment, recognition that Mr Cameron has made his mark on green issues.

The Tories are back in the game. After writing them off after Black Wednesday in 1992, the voters are listening again. Last December, Mr Cameron would have settled to be where he is now. But he knows he cannot rest on his laurels. In two speeches to the Tory conference, tomorrow and Wednesday, he will try to move up a gear by addressing the charge that he is "all style and no substance". That means moving from showing how the party has changed to showing how the party would change the country.

Labour seems unsure how to combat the Cameron threat. A striking feature of Labour's conference was how ministers attacked the Tories from the right, on crime, foreign policy, identity cards and nuclear power. I suspect this will damage Labour more than the Tories, by reinforcing Mr Cameron's message to the voters that his party is changing.

One reason for Mr Brown's impatience is that the Tory leader is stealing some of his best tunes. The Chancellor was kicking the walls when Mr Cameron backed a British Bill of Rights. He could have delivered the keynote speech Mr Cameron made on foreign affairs this month. Yesterday the Tory leader unveiled proposals to restore trust in politics by strengthening the ministerial code, another item on Mr Brown's "first 100 days" agenda.

But dividing lines remain. Mr Cameron's soundbite that, "There is such a thing as society; it's just not the same as the state", is a rejection of Thatcherism and the centralism, control freakery and state solutions to which the Tories say Mr Brown is wedded. The Chancellor has seen this coming; that is why he is talking about devolving power from the centre to an independent NHS board and local authorities.

Mr Brown and Mr Cameron are trying to neutralise the other's attacks. The Chancellor hopes the voters will prefer his solid, unflashy approach to Mr Cameron's various photo-opportunities. Hence the Tory leader's desire to offer more substance.

But if offering more substance is phase two, I am not sure he has yet completed phase one and convinced voters the party has changed, a necessary ingredient for election victory. The leader is different, but is the party? It tolerates Mr Cameron while he succeeds, but does it really believe in the project? When he put his mini-manifesto, Built to Last, to a ballot this summer, 73 per cent of party members did not bother to vote. The Tories have travelled far, but they have a long way to go.