Andrew Grice: Tories haunted by Hague and Howard failure

There has been a touch of Corporal Jones about the Tories this week
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The Independent Online

Rarely has the gulf between government and opposition been illustrated so dramatically. While Gordon Brown collects plaudits from around the world for saving the banking system, David Cameron has virtually disappeared off the planet.

Prime ministers can do, and Mr Brown has done it well. Mr Cameron, who got used to making the weather in British politics, could only watch. The man who everyone saw as our next prime minister has almost looked an irrelevant bystander during the financial crisis.

A year ago, the fortunes of the two main parties were reversed by Mr Brown's non-election. Now the wheel has turned again. Mr Cameron must adapt to a completely different agenda for an election that seemed in the bag but is no more. This crisis is made for Mr Brown's chosen dividing lines: substance versus spin; experience versus a risky "novice" and a key role for the state versus a smaller state. Serious times require serious men, even if they have been around a long time.

Yesterday Mr Cameron tried to halt these dramatic developments in their tracks. In a speech to a City audience, he ended the truce over the financial crisis and resumed normal political hostilities with a vengeance. He attacked the "complete and utter failure" of Mr Brown's economic policies, insisting the crisis was "a British failure" as well as an American one. His aides insist the bipartisan approach applied only to a deal on the banks which is now done, not the wider economic problems. They dismiss the idea that the speech shows they are rattled by Mr Brown's remarkable comeback and success on the banks.

All the same, there has been a touch of Corporal Jones about the Tories this week. They have been telling everyone in sight – and each other – that there is no need to panic. Which means, of course, they have got a severe bout of the jitters.

One Tory insider told me: "The backbenchers are panicking and now it's spreading to the top. The Cameroons are worried. They don't like Brown getting all the media attention. They are nervous about Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell being back on the scene. If you've been whipped three times by someone, you think they've gone away and they suddenly come back, then you fear you're going to be whipped again."

The Tory high command has told its troops to expect the party's opinion-poll lead, a solid 20 points for months, to drop to single figures. It expects Labour to regain the lead on economic competence. But it has reassured Tory MPs and activists that, while the Prime Minister will get the credit for saving the banks, he will get the blame for the downturn.

Tory strategists believe Mr Brown lacks the emotional intelligence and empathy to persuade the public he is on their side as the recession bites. True, he was much slower than Mr Cameron to speak about soaring prices at the petrol pump and supermarket checkout. But there are signs he has learnt from that mistake. Mr Brown is spending more time outside London, to combat fears shown up by Labour's polling that people outside the capital think the bank bailout is another example of a London-centric government looking after its own.

The Tories are not happy bunnies. There is some backbench grumbling about George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor. "Off the pace," snapped one MP. Some MPs found Mr Osborne unconvincing on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, when he struggled to explain why Tories had not been more critical of Mr Brown's record during his years as Chancellor.

The Tories are trying to say "we told you so". But did they? The man who sounded the loudest warning about the debt bubble was Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman. The Tories accuse Mr Brown of acting as though the good times would last forever. But they devised a policy based on "sharing the proceeds of growth", as if that would last forever, and endorsed Labour's spending plans.

Mr Cameron, too, is stretching things a bit as he tries to keep in the game. He told Jeremy Vine on Radio 2: "I said at the beginning of our conference that it may be necessary to do something very big and I had in mind the idea of recapitalisation, of putting taxpayers' money into banks". Yet he didn't spell out his big idea at the time, only when it became clear the Government would go for it.

One caller to the programme highlighted the Tory leader's difficult balancing act, saying he should get behind the Prime Minister. Mr Cameron pulled it off at his party's conference two weeks ago, and looked the part as a statesman. Yesterday, he revived some of the attack lines he left out of his main conference speech. He won't let Mr Brown cover his tracks, so the voters forget his part in creating the problems. Mr Brown thinks it looks silly for Mr Cameron to change tack so quickly, that the public want politicians to pull together at a time of adversity. That suits the Prime Minister, of course, as it limits the Opposition's scope to criticise.

In turn, the Tory leadership thinks Mr Brown is in danger of looking a little too triumphalist. While he plans to save the world, the Opposition will outline a barrage of measures to help the "real economy" in Britain. One aim is to counter fears that, because of their wealthy backgrounds, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne might be seen by voters as too close to the bailed-out bankers. Expect Tory initiatives to help ordinary people stand up to fat cats and big business.

Another dilemma beckons for Mr Cameron. The Tories' tax-cutting brigade is on the march again. They say the party should tear up its plans, and draw up a programme of spending cuts to fund the tax cuts needed to kickstart the economy. They accuse the leadership of "fighting the last war", haunted by the ghosts of the 2001 and 2005 elections, when tax cuts promised by William Hague and Michael Howard were translated into spending cuts and demolished by the Brown clunking fist.

Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne know the public mood has changed since, but have not yet found a new message with which to tap into it. So they are sticking to their "no upfront tax cuts" pledge, and won't be rushed into changing course. But the pressure on them to adopt a "tax cuts for growth" strategy will increase, especially if the opinion-poll gap continues to narrow.

The wheel will doubtless turn again. It would be a miracle for Mr Brown to avoid all blame for the recession, even if he starts every sentence with "the global problem began in America". Yet it's still possible that the voters will judge him the best man to see them through the crisis. If, as some cabinet ministers expect, it lasts until 2010, by when an election must be held, then Mr Cameron will have a different sort of crisis on his hands.