Michael Brown: A Brown exit is Cameron's biggest worry

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A year ago this week, the Tories came third in the Ealing by-election. The result followed a disastrous campaign, with "David Cameron's Conservatives", as they were being referred to, falling victim to Gordon Brown's political honeymoon.

The Tory Asian candidate was chosen solely for his media profile and he had no more than a passing association with the party. Pictures of him with Tony Blair at a Labour fund-raiser, days before his selection, plunged the Tories into disarray. The mood of dark depression and introspection presaged by that result continued up to the autumn party conference, and nothing seemed to go right last summer for the Tory leader.

Today, however, all Mr Cameron has to worry about is a stolen bike and, after last night's result in Glasgow East – where even though the Tories again trailed Labour and the SNP – his mood could not be more upbeat. The Tory Asian woman candidate and trade unionist, Davena Rankin, provided a brilliant platform for the Tories to practise their campaigning techniques deep in enemy territory, and also enabled them to showcase their new appeal to poverty stricken Labour voters. While many Tory voters clearly lent their votes to the SNP, the party nevertheless engaged in a spirited campaign. Expect to hear much of Miss Rankin in the future.

There will be no moves against the Prime Minister as the torpor of the silly season takes hold, but Mr Cameron's main worry now is that Labour might still be tempted to dump Mr Brown at a later date. Be sure, however, that if there is any threat to Mr Brown's position, the Tories will be outside Downing Street with the oxygen mask and resuscitation unit. The Prime Minister's survival until polling day is crucial to the Tory general election strategy. Fortunately, for the Tories, as the Labour MP Austin Mitchell said recently, "We're so incompetent we wouldn't know how to carry out a coup".

Mr Cameron leaves for his own summer holiday in Cornwall with a consistent opinion poll lead of 20 per cent and rave reviews from most of the media. His backbenchers will – more or less – allow him to do whatever he wishes so long as the poll lead holds.

Yesterday's rapprochement with the official Unionists offers the serious prospect of a Tory presence in Northern Ireland. Until now, those opposed to Labour have had no effective way of expressing their views. The attempt to set up an integrated Conservative Party in the early 1990s foundered. But now the official Unionists could be the mechanism by which Tory supporters are given a voice – and a vote – posing a credible threat to the DUP who, after bailing out the Government in the vote on 42 day detention, will be painted as Labour stooges.

Even the sideshow of the David Davis by-election saga did not, in the end, rain on Mr Cameron's parade. If he chooses to attend, he can look forward to celebrating the end of the parliamentary session by quaffing champagne with guests at today's civil partnership bash at Merchant Taylors' Hall for Alan Duncan, his shadow cabinet business and industry spokesman.

But if Mr Cameron really wants to give more than just a toaster and his blessing to Mr Duncan, he could perhaps contemplate giving him the Tory party chairmanship as a wedding present. Of all the most pressing matters on Mr Cameron's plate, this is a post that requires immediate attention. Notwithstanding the difficulties experienced by Caroline Spelman – the current occupant of the post – it is reasonable anyway to appoint a fresh face for the final two years before the election. All the engine room, fund-raising and mechanical preparations are successfully in place for the election campaign thanks to the strategic work of George Osborne and Lord Ashcroft. But a public cheerleader in the style of Margaret Thatcher's chairman, Cecil Parkinson, is now required. Nobody does cheerleading better than Mr Duncan and his media skills are second to none.

Other names in the chairmanship frame, also being touted, include the local government spokesman Eric Pickles, who master-minded the Crewe and Nantwich by-election victory. His earthy style won plaudits as he turned the tables on Labour's doomed "Tory Toff" tactic. Mr Pickles convinced voters that Labour were so out of touch with their own voters that "they're going round canvassing in top hats and tails".

A dark-horse contender could be the up-and-coming environment spokesman, Greg Barker, one of Mr Cameron's original supporters when, at the start of the leadership campaign in 2005, the total number of committed Cameroons would have fitted into a taxi with room to spare. Like Mr Duncan, Mr Barker oozes optimism and cheers up everyone who crosses his path.

One of the refreshing aspects of the Cameron leadership is that most of the Shadow Cabinet have now been in their posts for some time and know their briefs. As a consequence, the charge of inexperience is now fading. The other senior figures – including William Hague, George Osborne, Michael Gove, Andrew Lansley and Chris Grayling – have proved more than a match for their Labour counterparts.

The new shadow home affairs spokesman, Dominic Grieve, has eased himself into his role with barely a hiccup. Subconsciously, I find myself looking at these figures not as shadow spokesmen but as likely future secretaries of state. There seems little point in a massive upheaval other than to provide one or two opportunities for bright underlings.

In the run-up to the party conference in Birmingham, there will be media demands to reveal more of Mr Cameron's policy hand. He should probably ignore us. By all accounts, there is now a plethora of policies swirling around Conservative Campaign Headquarters – many with initially expensive price tags. But as it becomes ever more clear that Labour will use its dying days in office to continue profligacy by means of the national credit card, the state of the public finances on day one of Mr Cameron's administration will be dire.

So far, the Tory economic policy has assumed the continuation of economic growth with the magic formula of "sharing the proceeds of growth" between increases in health and education expenditure and reductions in taxation at the heart of the strategy. Now the shadow Chancellor may have to make assumptions on the basis that the public finances will be a disaster of 1979 proportions on polling day. The nightmare scenario will be that 2010 will be the year of budget cuts and even of tax rises. Fixing the broken economy will dominate a first-term Tory government. Fixing the broken society as well will be even more taxing.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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