Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Why Cameron wishes he had a Kinnock
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David Cameron is trying to achieve in three years a transformation that took Labour a decade. He is discovering that rebranding a political party involves more than replacing a torch symbol with a tree and changing your colour code from blue to green.

This week's Tory conference showed that Mr Cameron has achieved a lot in his first 10 months as Conservative leader. But it also illustrated that he is only at the start of a very long journey and that he doesn't yet have a route map.

The Bournemouth conference looked and felt much more modern. But it was only a superficial success. The Tory faithful are giving their young, inexperienced leader a chance but they are not really sure where he is taking them.

Mr Cameron is trying to copy Tony Blair's strategy in opposition, but this week he exposed the Tories as lacking the coherent strategy that New Labour had from 1994 to 1997. Team Blair would calculate precisely where it wanted to end up on any issue or policy and then work out how to get there. Then, New Labour had substance as well as style. So far, the Cameron operation is much more hand-to-mouth and lacks direction.

Mr Cameron's big speech on Wednesday looked much better on the television bulletins than it did in the Bournemouth conference hall. It lacked a coherent theme and had too many contradictions.

He was right to move beyond the environment - which has opened doors, particularly to women and young voters - on to issues which impact more on people's daily lives. But his message on the National Health Service lacked credibility. His "stop the cuts" plea sounded like a Unison slogan. It was bizarre at a time of record increases in health spending, coming from a party which opposed the national insurance rise which funded them. It was at odds with the Tories' pitch to complete the reforms that Labour has bottled, since the current difficulties stem largely from tackling long-hidden problems exposed by the Government's changes.

Mr Cameron's populist message also jarred with his repeated references to the tough decisions the Tories need to take. It implied that the NHS needs more money, even though his party would in the long run share the proceeds of economic growth between public spending and tax cuts.

His family's use of the NHS may reassure some of the 42 per cent of voters who do not trust the Conservatives to run hospitals and schools. But he will need to do more than shout "stop the cuts" when the Tories launch a campaign on health next week.

Mr Cameron is still at first base, eliminating the Tories' negatives and "brand contamination". The nasty party has a nice leader but the voters won't be won round until they know what the party stands for - not just what it is against.

A year ago, some Cameroons thought that Mr Cameron would be "the change" but now recognise that a new face is not enough. The worry is that the party's modest opinion poll gains are based on low-hanging fruit and that other voters will prove much harder to gather.

There is a big hole at the heart of the party. "We need to give people an instinctive feel for what we are about. That is the missing link," one adviser admitted. The Tories lack "the vision thing" that Margaret Thatcher had.

The gap is meant to be filled by a root-and-branch review of policy involving more than 400 people in nine different groups. But there are growing fears that the process will produce a chaotic menu of contradictory proposals next summer.

The Quality of Life team is keen on green taxes and the Public Services group wants to match Labour's spending on health and education. They will be in conflict with both an Economic Competitiveness group and a Tax Commission which will soon call for a £19bn cut in taxes. Tensions are also emerging on whether the state should reward marriage. Mr Cameron supports tax allowances for married couples, including homosexuals in civil partnerships, but not for cohabiting couples.

Oliver Letwin, the Tories' head of policy, has the unenviable task of ironing out these problems. I expect Mr Letwin's fine head of hair to be much greyer in a year's time. Although the policy groups are supposed to be "independent", he will apply some gentle pressure behind the scenes to limit the number of contradictions.

There is no guarantee that the groups' recommendations will survive. The crucial decisions will be taken by the Shadow Cabinet, and some frontbenchers are already signalling that they know best.

In the meantime, the Tories will try to pre-empt as much of Gordon Brown's agenda as possible. "We are working out what he will do, announce we support it and then, when he says it, we'll dismiss it as old news," one senior Tory admitted.

Mr Cameron has a difficult balancing act. He has to take a wary party with him but the electoral timetable means he must move quickly. He was dealt a bad hand by his predecessors, who shied away from the changes he is trying to implement.

Mr Blair had a much better inheritance because Neil Kinnock and John Smith had, to use Mr Cameron's metaphor, already provided the foundations on which to build the New Labour house. Mr Cameron is going to have to be a very fast builder and his project may not be completed by the next general election.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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