The Tories have bigger reasons to be pessimistic than the defection of an MP

To come close to winning, they will need help from their most destructive opponent since Robert Walpole
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Robert Jackson has as powerful and original an intellect as anyone in the House of Commons. He is also a man of broad cultural interests: anything but a monoglot politician. But he has the defects of his qualities. There is no vainer or more self-centred man in Parliament.

Of necessity, politics is a team game. If Mr Jackson has still not understood that, let him ask Tony Blair. Without going as far as Labour, any successful party or government will require compromises from its supporters. Mr Jackson himself was happy to play by those rules in his early years as an MP, when he had ministerial ambitions. In those days, he did not tell Mrs Thatcher that his views and hers differed on many points; he was too keen to serve in her government.

So he did, briefly, as the junior minister in charge of higher education. It was said of him that the aspect of his job which he most enjoyed was proving to vice-chancellors that he was cleverer than them. Anyway, though he had been desperate to become a minister, he never seemed to suit the role. There was always a suggestion of frivolity: of his being semi-detached.

He quickly became wholly detached and once he returned to the back benches, he saw less and less reason to display loyalty when he could no longer hope for advancement. In the last Parliament, he was nearly deselected by his Tory Association. I have spoken in his patch and met some of the local hierarchy. Likeable and in no way unreasonable, they would not have acted as they nearly did without severe provocation. They will now be regretting their lenity.

Early in this Parliament, Mr Jackson announced that he would not be standing again. It was assumed that he wanted to avoid another challenge. He also made it clear that he was leaving elected politics because he wanted another challenging job. Tony Blair's powers of patronage, and peerage, greatly exceed Michael Howard's. It was no coincidence that Mr Jackson released his letter, full of New Labour catchphrases, just before the Tories were due to publish the James report into government waste.

If Robert Jackson's aim was to spread despondency among his former colleagues, he has succeeded. Though he may be an ephemeral figure, ephemera matter, especially so close to an election. Yet the Tories have more basic reasons for pessimism than the defection of an MP. The party is still less than the sum of its parts. The Conservative Party is not doing nearly enough to win over the forces of conservatism.

Most Tories I talk to have had the same experience on the doorstep. They explain their policies on a range of issues, and the voter agrees with every one. "So you're a Tory, then?'' "No,'' comes the reply: "I used to vote Tory, but these days, I'm not sure what they stand for and I'm not sure I trust them.'' Asked whether they do trust Mr Blair, voters frequently reply in the negative. But that does not produce the pendulum swing which it would have done in previous decades.

This is Tony Blair's achievement. He has diminished expectations in him and his government without losing public support. The voters have seen through him without turning against him. In the early days, he often talked as if he were the Lord's anointed. Now, he is happy to seek re-election on the basis of "better the devil you know''. It seems to be working. Although the moral soufflé of 1997 has collapsed, the electorate seems happy enough to scrape the bowl.

The economy is the major explanation for all this. House prices have not collapsed, nor has the jobs market. Most people are better off than ever before, and feel it. In modern democracies, voters rarely sack their governments when they are feeling prosperous.

It is true that the opinion polls reveal worries about the future. Many people believe that taxes are bound to go up while the value of their pension is bound to go down. But even though there are widespread doubts, there is an equally widespread sense of "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof''. Not many people are locking up their credit cards.

One would have thought that the Tories could have made more inroads into the Brown record, along the lines of: "This man doubled your council tax, he has trashed your pension, he has thumped you with stealth taxes and if he's still there after the election, you wait. There'll be no more cloak and stealth; he'll get you.''

Yet many voters who believe that Gordon Brown has nasty surprises in store seem almost resigned to their fate. They do not think that anyone else could do better. This has been another of Mr Blair's successes. He has so dominated debate and so mesmerised the public that his opponents found themselves marginalised.

There is one galvanising issue that does work against the PM: the war. But that does not help the Tories. Their leaders could not have opposed the war and remained true to themselves. Yet it ought to have been possible to support the Government on the war while denouncing the lies that were told. On matters of war, the British people expect to be able to trust their government. Mr Blair abused that trust: one of the gravest breaches of faith a Prime Minister could commit. The Tories' inability to make that charge stick was a major strategic failure.

It is too late now for the Tories to discover a wonder weapon. That said, they should do everything possible to exploit the James report. David James has identified £35bn-worth of waste. Given that public expenditure has risen by £171bn since 1997, this is credible. If any organisation increases its spending so rapidly, it is inevitable that at least one fifth of the money will be wasted.

Moreover, the Government is clearly rattled by Mr James. Why else would they try to trump him with Mr Jackson? The Tories must do everything to ensure that James outlasts Jackson in the headlines.

Beyond that, there is always that patient girl, accustomed to being the Tories' standby when they are in need of a date: Laura Norder. Again, the Tories should have done much more, much earlier to respond to public outrage about crime. This is so near boiling point that it would require a remarkable degree of ineptitude if the Tories cannot use it to win several hundred thousand additional votes.

The Tories have one final hope. It would seem that a mood of complacent cynicism has settled over the political landscape. Yet it has still to be proved that cynicism is a sure foundation for a political platform, and even if it were, Tony Blair could still destabilise everything. When the election comes, he may well be unable to help himself. He will probably move into preachy mode. By reminding them of the skilful way in which they were deceived, that may annoy many voters.

Although that is not impossible, there are uncomfortable implications for the Tories. In order to come close to winning the next election, they will need help from the most destructive opponent they have faced since Robert Walpole. The Tories can only do well if Tony Blair loses his touch.