Norman Tebbit: Cameron must escape never-never land

We should assume the PM is not a Lib Dem at heart, but we need to know what sort of Conservative he really wants to be

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No Prime Minister can start from scratch with a clean sheet of paper and it is David Cameron's misfortune to be, as he described himself, "the heir to Blair". As if that were not bad enough, his Chancellor is the heir to Brown, with a toxic inheritance of debt.

On top of that, Mr Cameron has an inheritance of uncontrolled, unlimited, uncounted immigration, inflated central and local government pay rolls, failed banking regulation, and a limp surrender to Brussels on everything except, thanks to Mr Brown, entry to the eurozone.

Unfortunately he is also heir to his own misconceived election strategy which last year left him without a majority. That led to his decision to enter a coalition with the Liberal Democrats rather than form a minority Conservative administration and defy the Lib/Lab opposition to bring him down and precipitate another election.

That may well be all water under the bridge, but it circumscribes Mr Cameron's present options. Everything has to be negotiated with a party whose roots are in the Europhile wing of the Labour Party rather than Jo Grimond's Liberals. Happily for Mr Cameron, every day that Nick Clegg and the coalitionist Lib Dems remain in the coalition, the more dangerous it becomes for them to walk out and force an election. Whatever the outcome of such an election for the two main parties, it would be disastrous for Mr Clegg and his party unless they had done a deal with Labour, which seems unlikely. Indeed, Mr Clegg may need a deal of some sort with either Mr Cameron or Ed Miliband to be re-elected himself in 2015.

So far, Mr Clegg has skilfully pulled the coalition leftwards into the never-never land of Europhile, green, politically correct, business- bashing, nice windmills and no wicked plastic bags that is inhabited by his activists. With his ally Ken Clarke in the Ministry of Justice, he has had no need to struggle for his agenda there, and his cynical double-cross of Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley, first supporting then opposing NHS reform, has won him some dividends too.

In return, he has accepted the Chancellor's deficit (not debt) reduction strategy, the Duncan Smith plan to heal the open wounds inflicted by welfarism on society, and Michael Gove's efforts to reintroduce education and learning into state schools.

The trouble for the coalition is that there will be a lot of pain before the gains of those policies become apparent. Nor is it likely that doctors, nurses and patients, let alone NHS bureaucrats, will be in the streets singing the praises of the Lansley reforms before polling day 2015. None the less, Mr Cameron has some good cards in his hand. As the window for the Lib Dems to escape safely from the coalition closes, he will become more free to govern as a Conservative and to seek a majority in 2015, while blaming his partners for his failure to do so before now. That is, of course, if he wants to.

It seems only fair to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt and to assume that he is a Conservative rather than a Lib Dem at heart. Unhappily, however, it seems that he, and most of the bright young things who advise him, have fallen for that old canard that elections are won on the middle ground. That was not where Margaret Thatcher won, least of all where she won her third successive election in 1987, on a record and policies that the modernisers regard as toxic.

They fail to understand that any move to the centre moves the centre itself away from one's own ground and towards one's opponent. The art of political positioning is to seek out and possess the common ground on which your own and your opponent's supporters stand. As Ed Miliband in his speech conceded, Mrs Thatcher's council house sales, tax cuts and union reforms were right – that is, they appealed to many Labour voters, but not Labour activists. They were on the centre ground. Indeed, Ed Miliband tiptoed on to the home ground of "right-wing extremists" with his words about immigration and welfare scroungers because that is where his lost voters are encamped.

The strategy for Mr Cameron should then be clear. He should be open with both his party and the country, making plain what he would have liked to have done had his loveless partnership with the Lib Dems allowed him to do so. He should say that left to himself he would not have let a penny of British taxpayers money go to delaying and worsening the inevitable disaster in the eurozone, nor would he have agreed to further EU intrusion into our employment laws. He should add that he would have repealed the Human Rights Act long ago and if the European Court of Human Rights persists in interfering with our right to decide who may enter and stay in our country, or whether British criminals in British prisons should have the right to vote, he would press his coalition partners to agree to leave the Convention on Human Rights too. All that, the Prime Minister should explain, is part of the cost of coalition and remind the conference (and of course Lib Dem activists) that Mr Clegg and the Lib Dem coalitionists have also had to concede much that was dear to them, not least, on university fees.

All conference speeches and all appeals to the country need to be forward-looking, but have their feet on the ground. It was the 1986 party conference theme The Next Steps Forward that propelled the party into a lead in the polls which was held until polling day 1987. The Prime Minister's speech this week should set out the programme for a majority Conservative government. We, Tory activists and the electorate alike, want to know what sort of Conservative Mr Cameron really wants to be.

He has Ukip to the right and Lib-Lab on his left. He needs to set his feet on that common ground which appeals all the way from Ukip to Labour voters and build on it a conservative agenda, or he may never secure a majority at all.

Lord Tebbit is a former chairman of the Conservative Party

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