Steve Richards: A tidal wave is sweeping over Labour

The party is desperate. Voters fume. And a bad situation can only get worse
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The Independent Online

There are no qualifications. The election results are dire for Labour and a triumph for the Conservatives. When David Cameron claims that his party is on course for a general election victory, no one will smirk any more.

More worrying for Labour is that there is no obvious way forward to rebuild an election-winning coalition of support. Listen to the banalities from ministers and you can see how they are struggling to cope with the tide that is sweeping over them. "We will listen and lead" is the most common mantra and one that leads nowhere at all.

I doubt either that the ultra-Blairites will have a more convincing prescription for success when they step forward to stir the pot at some point soon. Nor will a change of leader make any difference, and could make matters worse. There is no alternative leader with the qualities, appeal and experience required to win a fourth term. And anyway, a second change of leader within a year would reinforce a sense of crisis. Look at what happened to the Tories as they played that game from 1997 onwards, moving from one unsuccessful leader to another.

Much more interesting is how David Cameron will make the most of the enhanced authority he enjoys as a result of these elections. Astutely during his first phase as leader, he undermined Tony Blair by supporting him. In doing so he exposed neatly the fatal weaknesses of Blair's version of New Labour.

Now he savages Gordon Brown by ruthlessly opposing him even though on some fronts Brown has tried weakly to be more Blairite than Blair. After an extraordinarily successful set of election results for Cameron, the much tougher challenge is to make his programme for government clearer and more coherent. That is the main reason why the next general election is not in the bag yet for the Tories.

From a national perspective, local elections raise questions rather than fully resolve them. Two related questions surface from what happened on Thursday. Is there any way Brown can recover, even though there is no obvious and clearly defined route map available to him? And are Cameron and his party ready for the much more forensic scrutiny they will receive? On the back of these elections, it is tempting to conclude that Brown is doomed and the Conservatives are fully prepared. Such conclusions would be premature.

Brown is a big politician. His critics inside his party and beyond wilfully underestimate his earlier achievement in transforming Labour's reputation from a party never to be trusted with the economy to one that, for a long time, established a huge lead in this policy area.

He secured that lead while still redistributing cash to the low paid and increasing investment in public services, acts that in Britain usually lead to economic crises or deep unpopularity. During the 2005 election, polls suggested that Brown, more than Blair, was Labour's vote- winner, again an astonishing achievement for a long-serving Labour chancellor. Such a successful politician does not become a disastrous one overnight. I do not join the chorus who write him off.

But as he seeks to climb the latest mountain on his wildly oscillating political journey, he will not get the benefit of the doubt on any front. The media have turned. His party is desperate. Voters fume. What is more, a bad situation can easily get worse, as John Major discovered. On current trends Labour will lose the forthcoming by-election in Crewe and, in the Commons, Brown will lose the vote over extending the period suspects can be detained to 42 days, his other act of folly in recent months. Such developments will heighten the sense of crisis.

So where are the shafts of light for Brown, the rays that make it premature to argue that a tipping point has been reached? The economy might prove to be more robust than the pessimists suggest. Surely the general election will not be contested against a similar backdrop of self-inflicted wounds and bleak external factors, including soaring food prices, over which the Government has no control but for which it gets the blame.

Even if the economy is still stuttering in two years' time, Brown must hope that, by then, the glow over Cameron has started to fade. Much of the current fashionable policy agenda, from the need to regulate banks to calls for more intervention on the environment, plays into Labour's hands. The problem has been the fear of Brown and others to make the most of it. Instead, Brown seeks fearfully to protect his right-wing flank only to find that support crumbles across the board. Still, there is a progressive agenda out there if he dares to articulate it.

Conversely for Cameron, the path towards power is not as clear at it seems. For now the Conservatives can make a credible claim that the next election is winnable. That is different from winning it. Being leader of the opposition is the second most difficult job in British politics, even if Labour has made it deceptively easy.

Soon Cameron must put together a coherent package of policies to echo his reassuring narrative. Tonally he makes a broadly appealing pitch, and yet the old cliché still applies in relation to that thorniest of policy areas, tax and public spending. The sums do not add up.

To take one example, the Conservatives propose a genuine choice of good schools available to all. This will cost a fortune, one reason why choice was disastrously limited in the past to the lucky few that passed the 11-plus. Is Cameron willing to pay for his apparently progressive values? In which case what will the right wing of his party make of it? I could think of 1,000 such questions on public spending alone. Cameron needs 1,000 answers fairly soon.

Blair had answered them when he fared as well as Cameron in the local elections two years before he came to power. By then Labour's left was licking its wounds. Cameron's right is not sure whether it is wounded or not. His party still lacks definition.

That is for another day. This weekend the Conservatives have cause for jubilation. Blair was right to warn Labour in the late 1990s that the Conservatives were only sleeping. They were never going to die in a country that supported them in four successive general elections. Now they are wide awake and it will take an act of titanic leadership to put them to sleep once more.