Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

The luxury of opposition won't last for ever
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The Independent Online

"Who would you rather be at the moment: Gordon Brown or David Cameron?" Tony Blair was asked by a viewer when he appeared on GMTV on Thursday and had to fend off questions about his successor's mounting problems. "Opposition is a lot easier than government," was his diplomatic answer.

It appears to be a no-brainer as Mr Brown fights a week-to-week battle to keep his job and Mr Cameron shows every sign of enjoying his. Morale in the Conservative Party is higher than it has been for years, while Labour's plumbs the depths. Yet all is not what it seems. Beneath the calm surface, there is a heated and growing debate inside the Tory party about what it should do next.

Mr Cameron is getting conflicting advice from left and right as colleagues urge him to press home his advantage by grinding Labour into the ground, making its demise inevitable. They believe the Tories will never have a better opportunity to turn the anti-Brown sentiment seen in the local elections and Crewe and Nantwich by-election into positive support for the Tories.

Mr Cameron is under renewed pressure from right-wing traditionalists to offer specific tax cuts. They argue that the mood of the voters has changed as they feel the economic chill. The credit crunch means there is now an economic as well as a philosophical case for tax cuts to boost the chances of avoiding recession.

The Tories will doubtless road-test tax-cut options in focus groups this autumn in the hope of repeating the success of their proposed cut in inheritance tax at last year's Tory conference. The tax-cutting brigade says that Labour can hardly accuse the Opposition of pledging unfunded tax cuts after conjuring £2.7bn out of nowhere to limit the damage from abolishing the 10p rate of income tax. Their arguments win sympathetic hearing from shadow ministers such as David Davis and Liam Fox.

However, other senior Tories urge caution. Oliver Letwin, the party's policy chief, believes it would be foolish to rush out commitments two years before a general election that Mr Brown could either pick apart or steal as appropriate. Ultra-modernisers are pressing Mr Cameron not to throw red meat to the ravenous tax-cutters. "We have decontaminated the Tory brand but we need to keep reminding people we have changed. We don't want to recontaminate it," one Cameroon told me.

Ultra-modernisers fear that Labour, having failed to convince the voters that Mr Cameron is a wolf in sheep's clothing, will now try to persuade them that he hasn't carried "the nasty party" with him. They are pushing him to pursue a Blair-style "permanent revolution" on issues such as the family, the "broken society" and the need for firms to show social responsibility.

Where is Mr Cameron in this debate? At the cautious end of the spectrum. For now at least, he is inclined to let Mr Brown stew in his own juice. He is wondering whether he can get away with a minimalist approach in the run-up to the election. He has been looking back at how specific on policy Labour was before winning power in 1997. Answer: not very.

As Mr Blair noted on Thursday, opposition has its advantages. Mr Cameron refused to be drawn into what the Tories would do about the 10p tax row, saying it was the Government's problem. He also took the opportunist route over road tax this week, opposing Labour's plans for retrospective rises on cars up to seven years old. If that means jeopardising his green credentials, so be it, as the voters have moved on in hard economic times.

Mr Cameron and his shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, have no intention of bowing to the tax-cutters, believing their stance has been vindicated by events.

Some Cameron allies worry that the "opportunism" label may stick, reinforcing Mr Brown's attack that the Tory leader is a salesman without substance. Some old hands agree. "The Tories can't continue to dodge the 'well, what would you do?' question much longer," Lord Tebbit, aformer party chairman, argued this week.

Despite Mr Blair's argument, government has its advantages, too. It can do things rather than merely promise. The Tories were frustrated that this week's launch of their policy on the voluntary sector was trumped by Labour's plans to bring in private firms to run struggling hospitals.

Mr Brown, naturally, is keen to keep the focus on policy and away from whether he will be forced out by his own party before the next election. Labour has managed a couple of policy hits but, at Chequers this weekend, he will have little time to relax. He will be telling his duty clerk to ring round a long list of potential Labour rebels in the hope of persuading them not to defeat him next Wednesday on plans for 42-day detention.

It looks like being an unhappy anniversary as Mr Brown approaches a year in Downing Street. Mr Cameron can enjoy the luxury of opposition – for now. But he will probably have to be more specific about his plans to be sure of enjoying the power of government.