Michael Brown: A Brownite trap awaits the Conservative leader

Mr Cameron must be disappointed. His small but consistent poll lead has evaporated

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As a prospective candidate for three years, standing in a Labour seat before the 1979 election, I had been trained by the modern campaigning tactics of the Thatcher era to get the Tory message over to a sceptical voter in 50 words and in less than 30 seconds. "Vote for me and you will have the chance to buy your council house at a discount. You won't be compelled to join a union; you'll vote in a secret ballot if the union forces you to go on strike. Under us you'll pay less tax and be better off."

By the start of the campaign I was pretty well word-perfect, and even though the manifesto was light on specifics, my pitch was a reasonable interpretation of what I thought we might do. We said nothing to voters about privatisation. Denationalisation of state enterprises was regarded as far too esoteric for voters and, scarred by the inability of successive governments to lower taxes and control inflation, we steered clear of getting into too much detail.

Of course, it took years before the union reforms were fully implemented. And within weeks of our successful election we actually increased indirect taxes. But the direction of travel was clearly established, and voters saw where, ultimately, we wanted to take the country. By contrast, David Cameron's message in his leader's address today at Bournemouth will take more than 40 minutes, and I doubt if it can be distilled on the doorstep by even the ablest of his "A-list" women candidates in fewer than a thousand words or half an hour.

There are still no firm policies, along with a determination not to "bang on" about crime, immigration, tax or Europe. Some delegates are becoming increasingly irritated by the way the Camer-oons are banning discussion of these issues. The leadership "talks" about the environment, child-care, social responsibility, work-life balance and international poverty, while dismissing, pejoratively, as "banging on", discussion of inconvenient topics. Mr Cameron is understandably determined - like Mrs Thatcher - not to get tied down to specific pledges and, like her, wants to break away from the immediate Tory past. She was as different from her predecessors as Mr Cameron seeks to be.

But a trap awaits Mr Cameron, in the shape of Gordon Brown. In nine months' time he, more than anyone else - even more than Mr Cameron - will define the politics of the next three years. The talk of Bournemouth is just how much top Tories are relishing taking on Mr Brown. The return of Punch and Judy politics, however, with the personal insults - "weak... incredible... autistic" - suggests a serious misreading of what is about to engulf the Tories next year.

Already Mr Brown may be preparing himself to lower taxes - certainly at the margin for those on modest incomes. As the Tory hierarchy worries about its own tax commission proposals, along with John Redwood's No Turning Back pamphlet and comments from the likes of Edward Leigh, I suspect that Mr Brown's acolyte, Ed Balls, is busy dissecting every detail of these offerings with a view to recommending standard rate cuts and threshold increases to the new Prime Minister.

The scene could even be set for a repeat of the Lawson/ Thatcher announcements on the eve of the 1987 election. "I have no proposals to reduce income tax... beyond one penny." Having previously opposed tax cuts, Neil Kinnock's Labour Party was frozen in the political headlights, challenged to vote for the measure but ultimately put in the nightmare position of having to abstain. The prospect of confronting Tories with a similar dilemma will surely prove deliciously enticing for clever strategists like Mr Balls - who may yet be Chancellor of the Exchequer before the next election.

Mr Cameron has had a largely free ride at this conference, the tone of which has been deliberately low-key. He must be disappointed that, after the turmoil that engulfed Labour only three weeks ago, his small but consistent poll lead has evaporated. So long as he is riding high he can afford to ignore any right-wing noisesoff. He has successfully defined himself as new, young and metropolitan, but his appeal has yet to extend to northern England. The husky-loving, hoodie-hugging, environmentalist has been undermined by the press relations gaffe when the bicycling leader was accompanied by the gas-guzzling official car bearing the shoes and the briefcase.

The Presbyterian style that will inhabit Downing Street upon the arrival of Mr Brown may provide a welcome antidote to the Blair years of spin and stardust that Mr Cameron seeks to emulate. The question is whether sunshine and optimism will be enough to challenge the new frugality that will be the deliberate personal hallmark of Mr Brown.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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