Steve Richards: David Cameron has style, but does he have the policies to return the Tories to power?

No longer will a Conservative leader fall into the trap of moving further to the right of Mr Blair
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The Independent Online

During a warm summer, the brightest autumn in recent years and the start of a cold winter, the Conservatives' leadership contest has dragged on. The seasons change, but the candidates are still battling away. To describe it as a struggle would be to exaggerate. David Davis was well ahead at the beginning and David Cameron is striding towards an easy victory at the end. The contest has always been one-sided, although the two final candidates were well ahead at different times.

In retrospect it is not clear what qualities made Mr Davis a clear favourite at the start. Equally Mr Cameron's soaring rise defies rational analysis. He made a competent, but vacuous speech at his party's conference in October. Within 24 hours of the address his words had become almost a work of art and he was invincible. In different ways this has been as eccentric a leadership contest as the many others staged by the Conservatives.

Nonetheless Conservatives are optimistic and ministers are nervy. Conversations with senior cabinet ministers turn within minutes to the likely impact of Mr Cameron when he acquires the crown next Tuesday. At the same time quite a few of the more enlightened Conservatives have a spring in their step at last.

I should make it clear there is nothing exceptional about this state of affairs. Having lost four elections in a row during the 1980s and 1990s, senior ministers are instinctive pessimists. They would be anxious if the Conservatives elected Lord Archer to be their leader, wondering neurotically if their opponents had hit upon a charismatic vote-winner.

Some commentators detect signs of complacency in the attitude of ministers towards Mr Cameron. They are wrong to do so. This government has not been complacent enough. For the past eight years it has spent far too much time trying to outmanoeuvre the Conservatives when the party was busy outmanoeuvring itself. There have also been fleeting flourishes of optimism from Conservatives in the past when previous leaders were elected.

Will it be different with Mr Cameron? On one level the political landscape will be transformed, unrecognisable from the past eight years. Mr Cameron will hit the ground running and the media will not be able to contain its excitement at the breathtaking novelty.

His first main speech as leader will symbolise the change. No doubt it will be staged in a poor urban area, or a location associated with public services. Mr Cameron's first performance at Prime Minister's Question Time next week will also signal a change of style. He will play the calm and considered prime minister-in-waiting, not the latest participant in a Punch and Judy show.

The new Shadow Cabinet will be young and dynamic. William Hague will be back, and bright young MPs will acquire a new prominence. I can read the editorials now: "At last the Conservatives have a team to take on this tired old government." The observation made by Harold Wilson's friend, Marcia Williams, in the 1970s will apply once more: "The Conservative-supporting newspapers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party. The left-of-centre newspapers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party".

That will be merely the start. The policy focus will be on the environment, inner cities, tackling poverty at home and abroad. Women candidates will be selected here, there and everywhere. Most astutely of all, Mr Cameron will support Tony Blair when the Prime Minister follows his centre-right instincts. No longer will a Conservative leader fall into the trap of moving further to the right of Mr Blair.

Senior ministers predict nervously that the Conservatives will be ahead in the polls by the new year. I agree with them, although this will have quite a lot to do with the current disarray in the Government.

As with so much else, Mr Blair is the model for Mr Cameron's early plans. In 1994, Mr Blair also hit the ground running. Within weeks he had unofficially re-christened his party as New Labour, announced a campaign to abolish Clause IV of his party's constitution and outlined a new economic framework. Every time he opened his mouth he was hailed as a philosopher king.

The abolition of Clause IV has acquired a mythical status ever since. Despairing Conservatives have reflected for years about their need for a Clause IV, a symbolic act to signal change. But the pivotal and challenging changes introduced by Messrs Blair and Brown related to the development of new economic policies. Symbolism is relatively easy in opposition. Policy-making is more demanding.

The real "Clause IV" moment for New Labour took place at the National Film Theatre in London in September 1994. In front of business leaders, Blair and Brown declared a new divide. Old Labour was a party of high taxation and high spending. New Labour would be the party of fair taxation and productive spending. This was not just a neat soundbite, but a framework for a range of policies that challenged Labour's orthodoxy and reassured voters who did not trust the party to run the economy.

Mr Cameron has neither carried out the policy revision nor challenged his party in the same way. He states frequently that he would spend the fruits of growth on tax cuts and improved public services, as if he had hit upon a new policy. This is not the case. It is precisely the same policy put forward by the Conservatives at the last two elections. As if by magic both Michael Howard and William Hague promised to improve public services and cut taxes. Apparently Mr Cameron plans to wave the wand one more time, as if he has not noticed that the last two conjurers were booed off the stage when they tried the same trick.

Already the Conservatives have renewed their support for a higher universal state pension, hinted at their backing for an expensive replacement to Trident, and called for more prisons to be built. This is on top of their support for spending levels on schools and hospitals. The fruits of growth will have to be bountiful indeed for Mr Cameron to meet his spending ambitions and cut taxes.

So far Mr Cameron's response to the "tax and spend" challenge has been to back his close ally, the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, in exploring the option of a flat tax. Such a move is the exact opposite of Blair and Brown's strategic thinking in the mid-1990s. They adopted tax-and-spend policies that symbolised a break with the past. A review of the flat tax is an extreme leap on the vote-losing terrain occupied by previous Conservative leaders.

Mr Cameron has style, the goodwill of the largely anti-Labour media and from next Tuesday almost certainly an authority-enhancing victory. Unless he develops more credible economic policies, he is doomed.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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