John Rentoul: Cameron's fightback is a Tory backtrack

Two advisers are battling for the ear of the Conservative leader, and the Murdoch ex-editor with a right-wing strategy is winning
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The Independent Online

The next election, whenever it is, will be decided by the answer to the big strategic question that dominates politics today. It is not a question that divides Labour and the Conservatives; it is one that divides the Conservative Party. And it is not a split between different wings of the Tory party but a tension that divides David Cameron's closest circle of advisers.

Since Cameron hired Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor, as his director of communications in the early summer, the dynamics of the Tory leader's inner circle have changed. Previously, the fundamental strategy of Cameron's leadership had been set by Steve Hilton, the anonymous political consultant responsible for the radical repositioning of the Conservatives on the Blairite centre ground.

Under Hilton's guidance, Cameron went green, made the NHS his top priority and got Tory audiences to applaud gay marriage. The Conservatives were rewarded by a sustained boost in the opinion polls that lifted them above Labour. Coulson's arrival coincided with the end of that phase of Tory revival. Even before Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, the terms of trade between Government and Opposition started to shift. Once Labour regained its lead in the polls, spooked Conservatives were no longer sure that their leader was a modern Moses.

At this point, on the question of how Cameron should respond to a resurgent Labour Party, a divide opened up between Hilton and Coulson. Coulson thought it was time for Cameron to try to win back the support of the right-wing press: The Sun, the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph. Hilton thought that Cameron should stick to the script: take the centre ground; keep challenging people's expectations of the Tory party.

The tension came to a head over an accidental issue. Cameron had arranged a trip to Rwanda to dramatise his commitment to African development, but it coincided with flooding in Britain. Coulson wanted to abandon the trip so that Cameron could put on his wellingtons and show solidarity with Brits in Trouble at Home. Hilton argued for the trip to go ahead and won the day. Unfortunately for him, the verdict of most of the press and most of the Tory party was that the African sojourn made Cameron look out of touch. Cameron was annoyed and more ready to listen to Coulson's advice.

Thus it was that the Tory "fight back", planned while Cameron was in France and put into action when he returned from holiday two weeks ago, marked a significant change of strategy. Despite the fact that the Labour Party says so, the truth is that it is a lurch to the right. And, although Hilton helped devise the "fight back" campaign, it is transparently following Coulson's strategic imperative rather than his own.

From the moment the Tory leader, fresh from his gîte, stepped into the Today programme studio and said, "We are not going to deal with anarchy in the UK unless we actually strengthen families and communities in the UK," his message has been all Coulson and no Hilton. He has said and done nothing to pursue the Hilton imperative of changing people's preconceptions of the Tory party, and everything to follow Coulson's advice on how to win back the conservative press.

And – in Coulson's terms – it has worked. The Sun has purred at "anarchy in the UK" and "the broken society". The Daily Mail has declared that there is hope for civilisation as we know it because George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, has hinted that he might indeed abolish inheritance tax, which must be of potential benefit to fewer than 5 per cent of its readers. And The Daily Telegraph was so encouraged by Cameron's view that immigration "has been too high" that it devoted its front page on Thursday to it.

The immigration story was significant because it was the occasion of another disagreement between Coulson and Hilton – and this time Coulson prevailed. Cameron's comments on immigration in a 45-minute Newsnight interview achieved the prominence they did partly because journalists were guided to them by Conservative officials. It was a deliberate spin operation, agreed between Cameron and Coulson, to distract attention from that part of the interview in which Cameron was asked about the outside earnings of William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary. (Which only goes to show that sometimes these things are cock-up and conspiracy, because no journalist to whom I have spoken thought Cameron said anything remotely newsworthy in defence of Hague's right to earn hundreds of thousands telling after-dinner jokes; I was more taken by Cameron's frank admission: "Yes, I am wealthy.")

Hilton was unhappy with the tactic, which puts at risk all his two years' work to detoxify the Tory brand. He and Cameron both know how Labour used the issue of immigration to portray Michael Howard as the nasty party at the last election.

While Hilton always said that there would be a "phase two" of Conservative rebranding, this is not it: this is the "core vote" strategy to which he thought Cameron had vowed never to return. Every single element of the "fight back" campaign reinforces traditional Tory assumptions rather than broadens them out. Cameron's pronouncements on crime and social breakdown are the politics of pessimism and fear. There has been no optimism and no sunshine.

What is more, the policies remain pathetically thin. Last week's document, It's time to fight back, promised to abolish the "stop" form that police have to fill in every time they question someone in the street. It may be a good idea to cut this bit of police paperchase – in which case Gordon Brown will announce it in about three weeks' time – but it is not much of an exaggeration to say that this proposal was about the sum of the substance. Meanwhile the green message has gone quiet. Concern for the socially excluded has been replaced by inheritance tax cuts for the relatively well-off. (How does that square with last year's statement of values, "The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society"?)

The big question, the big strategic question, is: who is right? Coulson or Hilton? We can guess what their arguments are. Coulson would say that the first 18 months of Cameron's leadership encouraged the voters to look at the party afresh, and that the core Tory message will be popular now that it has been stripped of its bad historical associations. Hilton is a Clinton-Blairite of the centre-right: he would say that you should never stop reaching out to the other side's soft voters.

So far – and pure Coulsonism has been pursued for only a fortnight – the verdict of the opinion polls is confused by the notorious problem of sampling over a bank holiday weekend. My view is that Coulsonism may work in the shortest of terms, and may serve Cameron's purpose in forcing Brown off an October election, but it is a strategic disaster. Already it has damaged Cameron below the waterline by making him seem an inconsistent opportunist.