John Rentoul: Beyond the bikes and butlers

They don't know if he is "all spin" or a real centrist whose party won't follow
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David Cameron should be hugging himself. He has enough material to give three good speeches at Conservative conference this week, and plenty left over to keep him in one-liners at Prime Minister's Questions until Christmas. When the House of Commons resumes, he will face a prime minister who has already said farewell, yet who is patently unwilling to hand over to his obvious successor. In Bournemouth, Cameron can pluck the low-hanging fruit of government ridicule: Cherie and Gordon; Tom Watson and Gordon; Alan Johnson, John Reid and Gordon; the Arctic Monkeys and Gordon...

We will all, with the signal exception of one G Brown, be entertained. There might even be a bit of substance to go with the fun and games. A little firming-up of a green policy that asks voters to pay something closer to the true environmental cost of their consumer choices, perhaps. A row about tax cuts that gives Cameron the chance to slap down the Thatcherites.

Yet it will be a strange Conservative conference because, while the initiative in British politics lies currently with Cameron, the important questions are on the other side: how should Labour respond? This is the question that lay behind the Labour conference last week. The reason that the Blairs and the Blairites do not want Gordon to take over - once their motives are stripped of personal animosities - is that they fear he will lose to Cameron at the general election.

Yet there was surprisingly little debate in Manchester last week about how to deal with the seismic political change of the past year, which was not the sudden shortening of Blair's political future but the apparent transformation of the Conservative Party with the election of Cameron as leader last December. So far, the Prime Minister and his would-be Labour successors are all over the place. They cannot agree whether Cameron is "all spin and no substance" or a genuine centrist who "cannot take his party with him". Last week, Blair preferred the first approach, mocking Cameron's Tories for not having "thought it through". He said: "They think it's all about image. Now, it's true we changed our image ... But I tell you something else: if I'd stood in 1997 on the policies of 1987 I would have lost."

Interestingly, it was Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, who took the second line last Sunday, describing Cameron as "an opponent worthy of respect... I think he is genuinely seeking the centre ground because he believes that's where his party ought to be. He has paid us the enormous compliment of imitation, but I don't think he has taken his party with him."

That is, surely, the right approach - not least because it respects the judgement made by the voters that Cameron is credible and sincere. This was borne out by our CommunicateResearch poll last weekend, which found that 46 per cent of people agreed that "David Cameron's concern for the environment is a deeply held conviction" - only 38 per cent disagreed.

Labour cannot do much to disrupt such perceptions, although the party can hardly be faulted for trying. One of its more seasoned attack dogs told me the onslaught on Cameron would consist of "bikes and butlers". In other words, they will go after him for stunts such as cycling to Westminster with car following, and by portraying him as an out-of-touch toff. But that is essentially the "spin and no substance" line, saying that Cameron's public relations conceals the unreformed Tory underneath.

The real danger to Cameron on this front comes from within. Two of Cameron's inner circle were overheard by one of the Prime Minister's entourage at The Spectator's summer party congratulating each other noisily. They had secured simultaneous headlines in the Financial Times proclaiming that Cameron would cut taxes and in The Guardian that he would increase public spending. Such glee, when the techniques of media management learnt from New Labour work their magic for the other side, smacks of student politics. Sometimes, some of Cameron's people seem to be enjoying the game for its own sake a little too much.

Equally, Cameron's image as a toff is more likely to be undermined by attempts by his own side to portray him as a man of the people than any jibes from Labour's class warriors. George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, yesterday told The House magazine that not everyone in the shadow cabinet went to Eton: William Hague, for example, comes "from his South Yorkshire comprehensive background".

Provided the greenhorns around him do not mess it up, then, Labour is faced with the more difficult problem of how to deal with an opposition leader whose sincerity is accepted by the British public. Tony Blair ought to be the first to understand that Labour's focus should be on the fact that the Tory party does not believe any of the green, liberal, high-spending stuff that it has just voted for in a pale imitation of his rewriting of Clause IV.

Of course, we can now see clearly the limits of the change wrought in Labour's psychology - one of the reasons Blair is going is because he failed, ultimately, to convert the party to his ideology. But Labour made a huge effort, lasting more than a decade, to suspend its disbelief. The question for the Conservatives in Bournemouth this week is whether they have made more than the most token of gestures in a similar direction.

And the question for Brown, Reid and Johnson in staking their claims to take on Cameron is how they respond to the Tories having fun by the seaside. Surprisingly, Johnson has the strategic edge so far. Labour's attitude to Cameron ought to be that he is a genuinely new kind of Tory, but that his instincts - and especially those of his shadow ministers - are still different from those of Labour people. In government, the Tories would take us, decision by decision, towards a smaller state. After four years, the cumulative effect would amount to a different future for the country. That is where the argument should be joined: it is about substance, not spin.