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Michael Brown: Class warfare won't win it for Labour

The aspirational middle class blame Gordon Brown, not the Tories' City friends

I knew that the political terms of the lobbying trade had shifted decisively in the Tories' favour when I walked through the conference hotel and bumped into the former Labour cabinet minister, (Lord) Chris Smith – now Chairman of the Environment Agency quango – dishing out business cards like confetti to Tory parliamentary candidates on the verge of victory next May.

I suggested mischievously to Lord Smith that he was there to lobby his own case to remain in post should the Tories win the election. He winced but courteously offered his Agency's services, as I introduced him to Nigel Adams – destined to win the Yorkshire seat of Selby from Labour next year. Labour cabinet ministers may not have given up yet on their party's chances but ex-Labour cabinet ministers certainly appear to have decided that it will be the Tories who will be buttering their bread next year.

This is as much a businessmen's convention as it is a Tory conference, with journalists and lobbyists seeming to outnumber the representatives. The mood is not triumphant but serious – and even a bit dull. Any champagne around is consumed furtively and the usual round of after-hours partying is subdued.

Party managers have clearly told candidates to be disciplined, sober and to refrain from talking – too much – to lobbyists and journalists. One candidate – facing a Labour majority of 15 votes in Kent – got so nervous when I told him that he was as good as elected, he felt obliged to go through the Tory mantra about complacency that he has obviously rehearsed in front of party managers.

But there is a reason for the nervousness that was succinctly underlined at a fringe meeting by Jeremy Hunt, the shadow cabinet culture spokesman, when he recognised that the Tories are not yet in the position of New Labour at their pre-election conference in 1996. Observing Labour's overwhelming poll ratings in the run-up to the subsequent landslide six months later, he suggested that voters had decided long before polling day that it was a case of "Tory – no thanks; Labour – yes please." This time he suggested voters have arrived at the "Labour – no thanks" stage. They are, he continued, now only in a "Tory – yes but ..." frame of mind.

So why the "but"? Thus far the polling evidence still suggests that a vote for the Tories is as more an anti-Labour vote rather than a positive Tory vote. Mr Hunt's explanation, not entirely convincing, is that politicians were universally more trusted in 1997, and that Labour's subsequent breaches of trust with voters have infected the totality of the body politic.

Some observers, however, suggest the voters' "but" still centres on the image of the Cameroons as a bunch of public school rich toffs, expecting large inheritances. Labour will go heavily negative by suggesting that the Tory leadership have little personal idea of what life is like for the average voter managing a limited budget and facing real reductions in their standard of living as the consequences of addressing the budget deficit bear down on their real incomes. Yet this weeks' Populus poll indicates that Mr Cameron is more popular than his party.

Mr Cameron's background as an Old Etonian is unlikely, on its own, to stop him being Prime Minister, but it will undoubtedly become a factor during the campaign – however much he relies on the 2005 line, "it's not where you come from; it's where your going to that's important" when he was facing the "toff" accusations during his leadership bid. My own reservations, as a former secondary modern school boy, led me to support David Davis, the boy from the council estate, during that contest. Yet when Labour made the issue of class a central issue in their disastrous Crewe and Nantwich by-election campaign against the successful Tory candidate, Edward Timpson, former Labour voters were not dissuaded from switching to the Tories.

According to this week's latest Populus poll, only 28 per cent of voters think that the Tory party has changed under Mr Cameron yet the same poll concluded that the "Cameron brand" is stronger among voters' perceptions than the Conservative Party. Resolving this conundrum is further complicated by a contradictory perception that only 43 per cent thought the Tories were "for ordinary people – not just the well off". Lib Dems scored 66 per cent and Labour 48 per cent.

George Osborne also appears to evoke similar voter impulses as a consequence of his own "toff" background. The charge that, as Chancellor, he will be making cuts to middle and lower class living standards while not experiencing, personally, the pain to which they will be subjected is also a potential elephant trap. Expect, also, Labour to make louder noises that the Osborne pledge on inheritance tax is a classic sign of a toff giving priority to his rich friends.

Yet there is little evidence that the humble backgrounds of Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher or John Major proved to be particular assets during their own bids for office. Mr Major made much of the "journey from Coldharbour Lane to Downing Street" but it hardly resonated with the public – notwithstanding strenuous efforts by his circle to sell this image. Frankly, the stories of family hardship – the failure of his father's garden gnome business – often ran the risk of reinforcing the satirists' image of him as a figure of ridicule.

Labour would, therefore, be ill-advised to revert to an old style class war campaign against the Cameroons. The working class continues to shrink and, in straitened times, the aspirational middle class puts more of the blame squarely at the door Gordon Brown's profligacy than at rich City banking friends of the Tories.

In fact, many of the parliamentary candidates in the most marginal Labour-held constituencies are decidedly lower middle class. Any voter in Selby, when confronted by Mr Adams on the doorstep, will certainly not be thinking "toff" when confronted with his forthright working- class regional accent. His mother was a school cleaner and home help while his father was a school caretaker. One way and another, between Mr Cameron and Mr Adams, the Tory party does seem capable of representing all aspects of modern Britain.