Michael Brown: Long may this Labour turmoil continue

The moment Blair finally departs will offer Brown the chance to regain the initiative
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The Independent Online

As David Cameron celebrated his first six months as Tory leader yesterday, he was rewarded with yet further polling evidence of the beneficial effects of his stewardship of his party. The latest Independent "poll of polls", taking the weighted averaged of all published polls in May, shows the Tories standing at 39 per cent, a 7 per cent lead on Labour's 32 per cent.

Whatever the individual differences between the various polling organisations, there is little doubt that there is an average of a five-point increase in the Tories' rating over their showing at the 2005 general election. What is more difficult to discern is whether this is wholly attributable to Mr Cameron's personal performances or to the turmoil created by the recent failures of New Labour.

The big question for Mr Cameron is whether he would do even better if there were an early transfer of power from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. Many Tories in his inner circle are impatient to do battle with Mr Brown and point to the less noticed poll findings that suggest an even bigger lead for the Tories in the event of a Brown-led Labour government.

The timing of the Prime Minister's demise is not directly in Mr Cameron's gift, but if his current poll lead adds to the growing unease on the Labour backbenchers - especially from those in marginal seats - his improving fortunes at Labour's expense may well have some direct bearing on the timetable of events.

There are, however, unlikely to be many further Commons votes where it might be in the gift of the Opposition to defeat the Prime Minister. Mr Cameron rightly passed up the chance to remove Mr Blair from 10 Downing Street during the final stages of the Education Bill last month. Few believe that Mr Blair's premiership would have survived a repudiation of a major part of the Labour manifesto if the Tories had supported the Labour rebels.

As things have turned out for the Tories, there is a strong case for the time being, for the continuing turmoil and leadership speculation inside the Labour Party to drag on for as long as possible. The more column inches expended on the Brown/Blair relationship, and the longer the present state of Labour drift continues, the more beleaguered the Government appears. On the current assumption that Mr Brown will eventually take over at the Labour conference in 2007, Mr Cameron will have enjoyed mischief-making from the opposition dispatch box for the best part of two years.

But the moment Mr Blair finally departs will also offer Mr Brown some immediate opportunities of regaining the political initiative. John Prescott will depart for a start. Brownism will be a strictly Presbyterian affair. Metaphorically speaking, it will be Morris Minors for ministerial limousines.

During the honeymoon period with the public there will be more of a sharper contrast with the outgoing premiership than anything Mr Cameron could offer were he to have directly succeeded Mr Blair in No 10. For a while Mr Brown, contrary to the current polling expectations, may re-establish the political initiative in Labour's favour. And there might even be a repetition of the Churchill-Eden handover in the spring of 1955.

On becoming Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden immediately requested the Queen to grant him a dissolution and, within six weeks of moving into No 10, he had succeeded in winning his own mandate from the people. Eden was able to justify his dash to the polls on the grounds that the parliamentary term was already expiring. But Mr Brown might be able to argue that, although he was barely halfway through the current term, his was, after a decade of Blair, effectively a new government that needed a new mandate from the country.

This scenario weighs particularly heavily on the mind of Francis Maude, the Tory party chairman, as it would deny the Tories space to sell their new policies. which are not due to be unveiled until the Tories' autumn 2007 conference. And it may be the reason why some senior Tories want the period between Mr Brown's accession and the next election to be as long as possible, so that he will have an already tarnished record to defend.

Tories also believe that after the immediate likely poll bounce for Mr Brown, the dark Presbyterian style will eventually provoke a public reaction against the new Prime Minister who will be seen merely to be a tired extension of all that has gone wrong in recent years. In the end, the Conservatives are, like the rest of us, merely observers of this ghoulish spectacle, but it may well be the extent of their continued renewal that will have the greatest impact on the timing of the Blair/Brown handover.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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