Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

One year on, Conservatives' 'posh bloke' needs to convince voters he is on their side
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The Independent Online

When a focus group was asked to cut out pictures from newspapers and magazines to represent David Cameron, they opted for a stately home, an expensive bottle of wine and a yacht.

The group discussion, for a new think tank, Opinion Leader Forum, showed people's abiding image of him was as a "posh bloke". I doubt the voters care much about Mr Cameron's background. But I suspect he still has to convince them he is on their side.

In his first year as Tory leader, Mr Cameron has achieved much more than William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard: the voters are listening to his party again. He has played down the Tories' traditional tunes on Europe, immigration and crime, and talked up the environment, health and poverty. Twelve months ago, Mr Cameron was seen as a "breath of fresh air", but that is inevitably wearing thin. "We've hit a plateau. We need to do something dramatic to provide some booster rockets," one senior Tory admitted.

The Cameroons insist their man remains on course to climb his daunting electoral mountain.

A year ago, he would have settled to be where he is today. He has got to make his ascent in stages. He had to clear away the undergrowth of negative perceptions of the Old Tories, and to ensure the policies of the New Tories were not dismissed out of hand.

His allies accept there are big challenges ahead. Winning people's confidence is a long game, and the Tories are hampered by a general lack of trust in all politicians. They are becalmed in the opinion polls, they whisper privately, because there is economic stability.

The booster rockets will have to come from new policies. But don't bank on an early blizzard. The next phase of Project Cameron will be to analyse what has gone wrong since 1997, and suggest what the Tories would do differently.

Mr Cameron worries Labour - rightly. It has not found a convincing line of attack on the Tory leader. Its portrayal of him as a chameleon who will say anything to please his audience unwittingly reflects Labour's scattergun assault on him.

After Hazel Blears, the Labour chairman, saw the focus group's findings, she made a speech saying: "I don't want 21st-century Britain run by people who went to Eton." To be fair, she wasn't advocating a class war. But she thinks his decision to include several Old Etonians in his Shadow Cabinet and inner circle may allow Labour to show it stands for ambition and aspiration, while the Tories represent privilege.

Gordon Brown's strategy against the man he will fight at the next general election will become clearer on Wednesday. On the day Mr Cameron reaches his first anniversary as Tory leader, the Chancellor will set out his last pre- Budget report. Don't expect any fireworks. The package is being described as "dry" within the Treasury walls. That means it will be very dry indeed.

Mr Brown will be able to announce better than usual news on hitting his targets for growth and the public finances.

He will give a nod towards green taxes, but only a little one. Expect a rise in air passenger duty on cheap flights, and petrol to rise in line with inflation. But the headlines about a hike in road tax for 4x4s may prove exaggerated.

The Chancellor does not believe that green taxes can produce a pot of gold, and will challenge the Tories to say how they could use them to fund tax cuts for families and businesses, as they have promised.

He is sure this would require politically impossible measures such as raising petrol prices above inflation and increasing domestic fuel and power bills.

Mr Brown's main focus will be on the challenges facing Britain over the next 10 to 20 years, on which he has commissioned independent reviews, like the one published yesterday on transport, and the Stern report on the economics of climate change. Others cover skills, the planning system, advances in medical research and the relationship between business and government.

There is a common thread which will go to the heart of the battle between Mr Brown and Mr Cameron. The Chancellor hopes the reviews will underline the need for an "enabling state" and undermine the Tories' call for "society" rather than a "Big Brother government" to take the lead.

He will argue, for example, that improving skills cannot be left to employers alone, since they would say they couldn't afford to train their staff.

But they might agree to a partnership with the Government, under which the state would pay for training, and the firm gives workers time off.

Having told the public about the daunting long-term challenges facing Britain, Mr Brown will invite the question: who is best equipped to tackle them? His hope is that the voters will choose experience over youth, substance over spin, and a leader who has taken plenty of hard decisions over someone who Tony Blair claimed has "never taken a tough decision his life".

Mr Cameron is looking for "tough decisions" to announce on policy - such as punishing polluters to help save the planet.

But decisions made in office may carry more weight than policy documents drawn up in Opposition.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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