Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Tories need fewer questions, more answers
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The Independent Online

When David Cameron held talks with Nicolas Sarkozy at Buckingham Palace during his recent state visit, the Tory leader was pleasantly surprised to be invited to Paris.

His relations with fellow centre-right politicians such as M. Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel are not easy. They don't understand the Europhobic isolationism of his plans to pull out of the European Parliament's mainstream centre-right group, the EU's social chapter and possibly the Treaty of Lisbon.

Mr Cameron accepted the invitation to Paris, thinking to himself that the French President must have read the opinion polls. Perhaps he wouldn't have bothered last summer when Gordon Brown was riding high. Today Mr Cameron has to be taken seriously because he could easily be the next prime minister.

The Tory leader is finding that nothing succeeds like success. He takes pride in a graph produced by his pollsters, showing the trend in the polls since last September. Back then, Labour averaged 40 per cent and the Tories 33 per cent. By last month, the parties had changed places, with the Tories on 40 per cent and Labour on 32 per cent. Yet when I caught up with him the other day, Mr Cameron was anything but complacent. He thinks, rightly, that he is stronger for surviving the intense pressure of the Brown honeymoon phase. His own party could have imploded, and might have done if it had not managed to fight back at its October conference. He didn't want an autumn election, even though he had to pretend he did.

That period already feels a long time ago. It is now Mr Cameron who rides high and it is Mr Brown's turn to be doubted by his own party. Mr Cameron judges that he can achieve much more when his party is doing well. A favourable backdrop makes his troops, the media and the public more receptive. Mr Brown must cope with the opposite effect as he swims against a tide ofindifference.

Yet Mr Cameron knows his party is not there yet. The Brown Government, for all its problems, is not hated in the way that John Major's administration was. Nor are the Tories loved in the way that Tony Blair was before 1997. Perhaps the voters remain scarred because their relationship with Mr Blair ended in tears.

Mr Cameron does not expect a smooth ride to victory. For a start, the electoral system means his party will need a double-figure lead to be confident of winning. The latest polls show an 11-point advantage but that could be a blip after a Budget which deepened the economic gloom.

The Tories know it may take a hung parliament and a second election to prise Labour out. Their leader expects more ups and downs, in his own party as well as the opinion polls, as he strikes a difficult balance between launching an initiative a day and being accused of invisibility. But he can claim to be setting an agenda that the Government has been forced to follow: on inheritance tax, welfare reform, MPs' expenses, a free vote on embryo research and even meeting the Dalai Lama.

His charge that Mr Brown is a "ditherer" is starting to stick. Whatever the internal debates about Tory strategy – and there are plenty – their salesman looks decisive when he makes his pitch.

Yet Mr Cameron is not the finished article. An opposition must offer more than opportunism. At his monthly press conference this week, he promised to work with rebel Labour MPs to overturn Mr Brown's decision to abolish the 10p lower rate of income tax. It seemed an easy hit. Yet he was asked repeated questions about where the Tories would find the billions needed and couldn't answer.

Although the polls suggest the Tories are ahead on the economy, I suspect this is more about people kicking the Government than warming to the opposition. True, the Tories are gradually winning people's trust. But when big questions arise – such as Northern Rock – they don't always have answers.

Much more work will be needed to withstand the heat of an election battle, to ensure Tory sums add up, and rein in frontbenchers who float pet projects without having the money to pay for them.

Watching Mr Cameron make a speech on social issues recently, I thought he was piecing together his own version of Mr Blair's much derided "third way". His close colleagues recoil when you call it that but it's true. So to mend what he calls "the broken society", the Tory leader rejects the top-down solutions of the left and the right's demands for the state to keep out.

In a speech on the economy two weeks ago, Mr Cameron spurned both the laissez-faire approach associated with Thatcherism and the "excessive bureaucratic interventionism" of Labour. "Economic liberalism alone is not enough," he said. "It is not enough for government to get out of the way. It must get involved." Similarly, the Tories seek to pick up the Blair mantle on public service reforms.

Meanwhile, Mr Brown faces accusations from his own party of sending confusing signals on reform, and, as I revealed here last week, his own MPs warn him that the public don't know what he stands for.

The Tories still need more flesh on the bones. Not lots of little policies but five or six meaty ones. The Cameron "third way" is a good start; it's probably where the public is on most issues. Plotting a middle course –"triangulation" in the phrase coined by Bill Clinton's strategists – does not necessarily result in messy compromises that please no one.

Mr Brown sometimes upsets everyone by seeking a third way where one doesn't exist, on whether to attend an EU signing ceremony or the Olympics, for example.If the policies are clear, coherent and presented decisively, "what works" (as Mr Blair defined his third way) can work.

Mr Cameron now thinks that styling himself as the "heir to Blair" was a mistake. But perhaps it wasn't.