For the past week, at Labour's conference, I have been looking – subconsciously – in the rear view mirror of the 1996 Tory conference when, as a government MP defending a narrow majority, I realised then that my electoral prospects were inevitably doomed. On the basis of the plaintive cries to me in the Brighton bars from Labour MPs expecting a similar fate, I should set up a profitable consolation service advising on what it is like to be on electoral death row. While Gordon Brown still expects to win, most Labour backbenchers already anticipate defeat.
Meanwhile, as the Tories gather in Manchester, dozens of exuberant Tory parliamentary candidates are already counting down the days (215 to 6 May) before they are on their way to Westminster. I suspect that David Cameron is the only person in the Tory party not absolutely certain that he is destined to win. His determination not to take victory for granted reminds me of Tony Blair who, even the night before polling day in 1997, could still not believe that he was heading for a landslide.
Any sign of pre-election triumphalism next week should be – and will be – stamped on by Mr Cameron's close circle and he will be anxious to ensure that a certain humility replaces the charge of arrogance that some have recently levelled at him and George Osborne. Of course, he goes to Manchester with the opinion poll wind in his sails and The Sun shining on him. Every public affairs company in the land is beating a path to the Tory conference. Tory parliamentary candidates, facing even five-figure Labour majorities, tell me that they have fistfuls of free invitations to breakfasts, lunches, receptions and dinners from every conceivable interest group.
And yet, notwithstanding the defection of the Murdoch press, Labour ended the week slightly better than they began – one daily snapshot poll even narrowed the gap with the Tories to 7 per cent. And the end of the Tory conference next week might still reveal one or two exposed flanks.
First will be the wretched European issue which continues to haunt the Tories. No doubt William Hague is already working overtime in drafting the Tory response to the Irish referendum vote on the Lisbon Treaty. His hitherto successful formula (that even if the treaty is ratified by all member states by the time of the general election a Tory government would "not let matters rest") will be tested to destruction by every media interviewer. Any pragmatic backsliding by the leadership will cause tension from the Eurosceptics in the present parliamentary party. They constantly remind the Cameroons that their votes in the 2005 leadership election were crucial to scuppering the chances of David Davis – then the front-runner. Equally, too bullish a response runs the risk of upsetting the Europhiles who, while few in number, and largely from a now retired generation of grandees, nevertheless punch above their weight. Presumably Ken Clarke, the shadow Business Secretary, will have already been squared – although he will still have embarrassing questions thrown at him by a mischievous media.
But, second, assuming Europe is successfully addressed during tomorrow's round of Sunday-morning television interviews prior to the conference opening, the fundamental question of the ballooning public deficit has the capacity to cause as many potential elephant traps for the Tories as for Labour. Mr Osborne can, if he wishes, resist calls to identify specific departmental budget cuts. But he will certainly be challenged to confirm or deny his willingness to adopt Gordon Brown's spending wish list in the Prime Minister's Brighton speech – including the massive funding promised for personal care for the elderly. Here, Mr Brown has set a trap for the Tories. Knowing he probably won't be around to deliver on these pledges (and how unaffordable they are anyway) he forces the Tories either to accept them – and then challenge them on where they will find the money – or be seen as hard-hearted if they fail to make similar promises.
While the Tories will be under pressure to reveal their tax and spending plans at Manchester and will, no doubt, want to dribble out one or two policy initiatives, they can still parry the central questions of tax, spending and cuts until after Alistair Darling's pre-Budget report next month. Maximum scrutiny of Tory economic policy will be possible only when Mr Darling sets out the extent of his own proposals. The Tory nightmare scenario must be that Mr Darling sets out a full three-year spending plan complete with detailed departmental cuts and ring-fenced priorities. If the Tories say "not enough", Mr Darling can signpost an election battle around "nice" Labour cuts vs "nasty" Tory cuts. But Mr Osborne need not worry about that in Manchester.
The Tories' secret weapon remains the strength of their grass-roots organisation and financial good health. Whatever the predictions of the opinion polls – which are not quite as solid as the Tories would wish – the state of local readiness is probably the best I have ever known and certainly much better than in the autumn of 1978. Of course, electoral technology is out of all recognition to those faraway days. But even though the internet was unheard of, armies of party workers brought voters out in their droves with 80 per cent turnouts then the norm. This time, in spite of an apathetic electorate, the Tories have the advantage in enthusiasm and organisational terms.
As I drifted back, at Brighton, to the last time a Tory opposition was on the threshold of power, I could not help reminding myself of the 1978 Tory conference when, as a callow 27-year-old, I dreamt of winning Scunthorpe, a safe Labour seat. That October Tory conference was a frustrating event. Jim Callaghan had unwisely passed up calling an autumn election – which I would have certainly lost. In the end it was the unplanned, unanticipated events of the subsequent "winter of discontent" that enabled me – and Margaret Thatcher – to "seal the deal" with the voters. Maybe, when this conference season is a distant memory, the next seven months will yet provide a similar unexpected event which will seal Mr Brown's – or Mr Cameron's – fate.