Steve Richards: Cameron is making the right moves, but unlike Blair, he has to start from scratch

Kinnock had already cleared some of the obstacles to victory; recent Tory leaders have not
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The Independent Online

Unlike his predecessors, David Cameron makes the obvious moves. With a breathless energy, he launches a stimulating initiative on an almost daily basis. What is more, each of them is astutely judged. From his perspective, he is correct to continue supporting Blair's education reforms. With some genuine force, Cameron can argue that, although the Conservatives are in opposition, their ideas continue to influence government policy.

On other fronts, he has made it clear from the beginning that economic stability will take priority over tax cuts for which there is no great clamour in the broader electorate. His policy reviews also have the potential to take the party in fruitful directions, especially those relating to the environment and the constitution.

Each move echoes precisely New Labour's successful strategy from the mid-1990s. As a new leader, Blair unveiled a similar array of policy launches. He also made a series of thoughtful speeches that sought to place New Labour in a historical context. Cameron did the same in his important speech last week in which he made the point that the Conservatives had won the ideological battles of the 1980s, but that Blair had recognised the need to combine social justice with economic efficiency.

Astonishingly, he is the first Conservative leader since 1994 to place his objectives in a broader political context. In doing so, he was mirroring Blair's reflections as he sought to reposition Labour. The mirror is applied on other fronts too. In the mid-1990s, Blair recognised a wider unease about the long period of Conservative rule and made constitutional reform and "trust" in government a central theme. Cameron does the same now. Blair surprised often by moving on to new terrain for a left-of-centre leader. Now Cameron seeks to outflank Blair on the environment and, in contemplating the removal of the royal prerogative, is happy to cite Tony Benn as a source of inspiration.

Cameron is moving so fast it is almost impossible to keep up. Yet he does so in a very different context to Blair in 1994. By then, Labour had reformed significantly and had established already the outlines of a pragmatic left-of-centre programme. This is a major difference and one that is misunderstood by those who assume Labour became "new" in 1994 and until then was "old".

On acquiring the leadership, Blair did not have to spend much of his time reversing policies inherited from his predecessor, John Smith. Indeed much of Blair's inheritance formed the 1997 manifesto. Blair gave the impression of more change in relation to policy than was really the case, giving him the double-whammy of novelty without having to counter claims that he was performing U-turns.

Occasionally the Conservatives attacked Blair for supporting Labour's left-wing 1983 election manifesto, but that campaign had been fought long ago. Nearly all the policies from that era had been dumped already. Blair's leadership did not represent a complete break with the immediate past and in some ways was a logical development.

In contrast, Cameron acts like Blair but is closer to facing the challenges that overwhelmed Neil Kinnock as the Labour leader in the 1980s. Every time Kinnock changed a vote-losing policy, he stood back and awaited the cheers from the broader electorate. Instead, to his horror, the polls suggested that voters regarded him as an opportunist and untrustworthy. In retrospect, Kinnock was in a trap from the beginning. If he had kept Labour's policies from the early 1980s, he was doomed. By changing them beyond recognition, he was also destined to fail.

I am not suggesting the same fate awaits Cameron. His party is incomparably easier to lead, he has fewer policies to change and he will get a much easier ride from the media. Even so, the internal reactions to Cameron's changes are closer to those that greeted Kinnock's reforms. I am surprised that already some in his party grumble at what he is doing. Some of Cameron's close allies cite the squeals of Norman Tebbit as proof that they are moving in t he right direction.

But Lord Tebbit is a more formidable opponent than the likes of Arthur Scargill who fumed at Blair in 1994. Tebbit was involved in successful election campaigns and speaks still for a significant section of his party. In the end, a leader, however brilliant, can go only as far as his party will permit him.

As Cameron moves as far as he can, Labour's strategists strike out at the unavoidable area of vulnerability. On Tuesday, Gordon Brown told the BBC that Cameron was declaring one day that he was a Conservative to the core, the next that he was heir to New Labour, and the next that he was a liberal Conservative. Indicating that the two are co-ordinating on this at least, Blair made precisely the same point at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday, adding that, given his confused identity, he was not surprised that Cameron was against ID cards.

Arguably it is possible and consistent to be Conservative to the core, a liberal Conservative and New Labour's heir, but the arguments demand subtlety to say the least. In the meantime, Blair and Brown have learnt how to turn their opponents' strengths into weaknesses. William Hague started to make some impact with his witty observations in the Commons.

In response, Blair repeated persistently that Hague might be good at telling jokes but not much else. Terrified of appearing more like a stand-up comedian, Hague stopped being witty and lost his main weapon. The latest strategy is much more threatening for Cameron as it targets substance rather than style. Cameron knows he must prove his party has changed and yet in doing so he risks looking superficial and opportunistic.

A leader cannot transcend the context in which he acquires the throne. In very different ways, and to varying degrees, Kinnock and John Smith had cleared some of the obstacles in the way of a Labour victory. In contrast recent Conservative leaders did not make the obvious moves. Cameron must make them all.

I still believe my assessment was correct. After their defeats in 1997 and 2001, the Tories were not in as desperate a position as many of them feared. Their wilful lack of progress up until the last election means that winning the next one is much harder than they dare to hope.