Bruce Anderson: David Cameron is a lucky man - but he has had one relaunch, and won't get another

The Tory leader is not yet an inevitable prime minister. But he is a credible one – and becoming more so
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was a damned close-run thing. Labour MPs have been complaining that Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander have far too much influence for a pair of whippersnappers who know nothing about the real world. That could so easily have been Tory MPs attacking George Osborne and Steve Hilton. Mr Blair is saying nothing. Even Mrs Blair is guarding her tongue. But three former Blairite cabinet ministers – Stephen Byers, Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn – are ready to express their discontent. The Blairite/Brownite split could quickly command the space which the media had set aside for Tory modernisers versus Tory traditionalists.

The Liberals, meanwhile, are leading lives of quiet desperation, though to be fair, it only seems quiet because no one else can be bothered to take an interest in the noise. A lot of Liberals want Ming Campbell to act his age. They would like to see "pensioner crisis" headlines which do not refer to their party's leadership (to paraphrase Jim Callaghan, "leadership: what leadership?"). Yet it could have been the Tories facing the threat of an eighth leadership contest in 18 years.

David Cameron has had an extraordinary fortnight. In effect, it was a relaunch. He belittled Gordon Brown, recaptured the public's interest and seized control of the political agenda. Mr Brown had wanted his premiership to seem as inevitable to the nation as it had to the Parliamentary Labour Party. Instead, he looks less like a Prime Minster and more like a dinosaur whose central nervous system is so primitive that its backside can be on fire for 20 minutes before the smoke reaches its nostrils

Although David Cameron is not yet an inevitable Prime Minister, he is undoubtedly a credible one and becoming steadily more so. Yet before preparing for a campaign which could last for two-and-a-half years – May 2010 is the likeliest date for the next election – the Tories would be wise to ask themselves what went wrong and why a relaunch was necessary. How did Gordon Brown come so close to getting away with it?

After all, the strategy was clear. Mr Cameron had always intended to spend the first year of his leadership in de-trashing the brand: persuading voters who cared about public services and the environment that the Tories were on their side and that Toryism was not government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.

David Cameron was aware that he would have to deploy his freshness, his deeply held convictions and his force of personality to transform his party's image. That seemed to be working, but there was a problem. What about the voters who were exercised about crime and immigration? What about the aspirational classes: the people who wanted to earn enough to afford to care about the environment?

The plan was that around the end of year one, there would be a legerdemain of invisible mending, after which Mr Cameron's new Toryism would come together with older Tory themes in a smooth confluence. Thereafter, there would be a bit less bunny-hugging and a bit more bunny-boiling. But it never happened. The older themes never came into play. As a result, the Cameron project had lost momentum even before Mr Brown took over. The Tories were then forced to relearn two of the oldest lessons in politics. If you are not pushing forward, you will be pushed backwards. If you do not define yourself, your opponents will define you.

During the Labour conference, a Tory journalist had a meal with some of the cockier young Brownites. Regardless of their doom, the little victims dined, chortling about crushing the Tories and holding power indefinitely; this was the start of the thousand-year dreich. When the Tory pointed out that David Cameron was not only able but steely, the response was incredulous laughter.

They ken the noo. But they were not alone in their delusions. Over the past few months, some of Mr Cameron's friends have been reduced to incredulous frustration at his and his party's inability to project his merits. He seemed to be coming across as no more than an Edward, Prince of Wales, something must be done, amiable toff.

Not any more, but there must never be a recurrence. Politicians are lucky to be allowed one relaunch. There is little hope of a second. Having taken over the radio station, Mr Cameron must continue to broadcast his music.

This should not be difficult. In the short run, there is Europe to keep Labour on the defensive. In August, there were rumours that Mr Brown would concede a referendum . Among Tories, this aroused alarm and despondency. There were fears that it could give the PM an unassailable lead. If he did think seriously about it, Mr Brown obviously concluded that he did not need to make such a concession as he was strong enough already. Now, when that is no longer true, there is a different risk. Mr Brown would seem weak. Yet again, he would be dancing, or rather lumbering, to Tory tunes. No doubt he would insist that his change of mind had nothing to do with the opinion polls – and keep on insisting as he was swept away in a tsunami of derision.

But assuming that there is no referendum, Mr Brown will face months of pressure. There are Labour dissidents, and as weakness breeds weakness in politics, it will now be harder for the whips to coerce them. Moreover, the voters would notice. But they will also note a more important point. Forget the Euro-complexities: the referendum argument comes down to a question of honour, trust and truth. This government gave its word. It now proposes to break it. That is a betrayal. A few weeks ago, Mr Brown might have thought that another hour's narcoleptic chuntering about his "values" might have been enough to calm everyone down. Those hopes are as dead as his hopes for a November election. Even if he sent the voters to sleep, they would wake up angry. As for the values of the manse, how about: "Thou shalt not bear false witness"?

Europe will last for months, and it is hard to see how Gordon Brown can avoid a sustained battering. But it is important that the Tories should seem neither exclusively negative nor obsessed with Europe. Fortunately for Mr Cameron, there is a vast amount of enticing material in the policy group reports. He should be able to use this to maintain his command of the political agenda. As Mr Brown looks stale, bruised and dishonourable, the Tory leader could come across as an increasingly plausible custodian of the national interest.

It is not all over yet. If Mrs Thatcher had been only seven points behind halfway through a Parliament, she would have wondered what she was doing wrong. After September 1992, John Major would have killed for a poll giving him 36 per cent. The Tories face a lot of hard pounding. But the position is infinitely better than even the most optimistic Tory would have dared predict only a fortnight ago.