John Rentoul: Whodunnit? Cameron, of course

Very quickly, this story is going to move on to who on earth is Nick Clegg?

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First blood to David Cameron, then. We can trace the downfall of Charles Kennedy like the origins of the English Civil War in an A-level history essay - preconditions, causes and triggers. The decisive trigger was Kennedy's bout of heavy drinking in November. The trigger was pulled by - historians will adjudicate over their competing claims - Sandra Gidley, the MP who challenged him at a meeting of his front-bench team; Vince Cable, the economic spokesman who drafted the pre-Christmas round robin signed by 11 members of the so-called shadow cabinet; or Daisy McAndrew, Kennedy's former press officer, who was about to break the story of his treatment for alcoholism.

The preconditions are similarly straightforward. The fundamental one was the long-standing loss of confidence in Kennedy on the part of most of his senior parliamentary colleagues. This in turn arose from his drink problem, which meant that his functioning as a politician was uneven and that those who had to work with him did not feel that they could rely on him. Related to this, but distinct, was an abiding sense that Kennedy was not as forceful, energetic and charismatic as a leader should be. As a result, the party seemed to miss opportunities. Kennedy did not only have a drink problem, he had an underperformance problem, and it is far from clear which contributed to which. On its own, his failure to live up to early promise might not have been fatal, especially in the absence of an obvious alternative leader.

It is the cause of Kennedy's downfall, however, that tells the larger political story. What really caused the crisis was the election of David Cameron as the Conservative leader. The big story of politics even before 6 December, but sharply accelerated since, has been Cameron's move towards Tony Blair. It has been textbook, mirror-image stuff. All the tricks from the New Labour manual of positioning and presentation have been deployed, with precisely the same tingling sense of confounded expectations in which Blair delighted in 1994. Like strawberries with black pepper or curried ice cream, there is nothing more calculated to tease jaded journalistic palates than a Labour leader having a go at single parents or a Tory one pledging to fight global poverty as "a priority, not an afterthought".

It is easy to pick apart many of Cameron's positions as opportunistic or ill-considered. As Patricia Hewitt points out in her interview in this newspaper today, his finger-wagging at WH Smith for selling half-price chocolate oranges to an obese nation is curious coming from someone who thinks that a smoking ban is nanny-state interference. It may even be right, as Blair often boasts privately, that he and Gordon Brown put in a lot more work on policy to make sure that the positions they took were robust - although that was not always how it looked at the time. But the New Labour textbook is a remarkably effective guide, and Cameron can hardly go wrong - in these early days - if he sticks closely to it.

The key to understanding the Conservative revival, as it was to understanding the Blair bubble, is to know about the dynamics of the politico-media complex. Cameron wants to be written up as new and exciting. The media want to write him up as new and exciting, because that fits the template into which news reporting either fits or is made to fit. Journalists, as Alastair Campbell never tired of pointing out, are just as capable of spin as are politicians. Thus Oliver Letwin, Cameron's policy chief, last month gave a conventional Tory view of the role of the state: "We do redistribute money and we should redistribute money, but we have to find ways that empower people rather than reducing them to dependency." Four words were lifted from that sentence, "we should redistribute money", and proclaimed as a revolution in Tory thinking. And why would Letwin or Cameron object?

The audacity of Cameron appealing to Liberal Democrat voters, councillors and MPs to defect to him thrilled the media and spooked the Liberal Democrats. It fitted the template, so it worked, despite stubborn realities such as Cameron's anti-Europeanism. And the template is what did for Kennedy: David Cameron Goes Green; David Cameron Defends a Free Health Service; David Cameron is Nice to Small Furry Mammals. Oops, another tricky one that, since it consists of hunting said mammals with dogs - the trouble with foxes being that they suffer from false consciousness and are poor at understanding their true interests.

But that is a detail. What counts is the general impression of liberal moderation, which has given the Tories the lead in the opinion polls and cut into Liberal Democrat support. That has spooked the left of the Labour Party, the right of the Tory party and it has convulsed the Liberal Democrats.

That is what ensured that Kennedy would be pushed over the brink. They tried to push him many times before, but the context was not right. Now the next chapter of the story is about to begin. This is where the Liberal Democrats will be tested. Will the next chapter be simply another instalment in the Rise of Cameron, or will the action switch to the rebirth of the third party? The easy story, with which the media will run unless strongly steered away, can be written now. Cameron destabilises the Liberal Democrats. Cameron claims Kennedy's scalp. Cameron wins the local elections. Cameron disrupts the stable, orderly transition from Blair to Brown.

But the Liberal Democrats have a chance to tell a different story. They too have a ready-made template to hand. It is the tale of a leadership election as a showcase for the party, in which a young, unexpected champion emerges to steal the crown. Copyright T Blair 1994. Licensed to D Cameron 2005. May be reproduced without attribution by any political party with the necessary talent and cast of Gordon Brown or David Davis lookalikes to look suitably crestfallen.

Very, very quickly, this story is going to move on to who on earth is Nick Clegg? Does anybody know what he looks like? The bright new MP for Sheffield Hallam is often mentioned as a leadership contender for the far-distant future - which is, as Blair and Cameron both know, how the fairy tale always begins.

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