Steve Richards: David Cameron is ready for opposition, but is he able to prepare his party for power?

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The Independent Online

The Conservative Party has voted for a venture into the unknowable led by the unknown. David Cameron's recent ubiquity obscures how little the new leader has revealed about his future intentions. With a Blairite flourish, he says he wants his party to change. The scale of his victory suggests that his party is willing to change. What is far from clear is what form the change will take.

Mr Cameron's victory speech yesterday was emblematic. He delivered enticing words with verve, but raised a series of thorny questions.

In the space of a few minutes the new leader suggested that it was necessary to change the way Conservatives thought, especially in relation to the inner cities. He sought improvements in transport, a significant failing of the current government. He wanted well-funded public services, safe streets, clean public spaces and tough policies to reduce carbon emissions. With a single leap, he appeared to be placing the Conservatives firmly on the centre ground.

But he concluded with a soundbite which suggests that the leap will not be as surefooted as the self-confident delivery suggests. Mr Cameron declared: "There is such a thing as society, but it's not the same as the state." Superficially, this is a soundbite that ticks several boxes. The artful words appear to challenge Margaret Thatcher's observation that there was no such thing as society. At the same time, they echo her populist cry that the state must get off our backs.

Mr Cameron has hit upon his own third way, a believer in society and an advocate of a smaller state. The problem is that it is the state in its various manifestations that binds together the varying and sometimes conflicting elements in society.

More specifically, the state will be required to bring about the appealing objectives outlined by Mr Cameron. Most voters are not going to reduce carbon emissions voluntarily. Investment in public services will happen only if the government is willing to invest. In this early phase of his leadership, Mr Cameron shows no signs of addressing the conundrum that has undermined previous leaders of his party. Conservatives seek still European standards in public services and US levels of taxation.

But while it is easy to overestimate Mr Cameron, it would be wrong to underestimate the new leader and his party. In spite of its recent turbulent past, the Conservative Party is relatively easy to lead. Leaders announce big policy changes, and on the whole the party accepts them. Each leader inherits a blank canvas on which to create a new political portrait.

To take some recent examples: a leader puts on a baseball cap, moves to the centre ground, and his party dances to the new tunes. When tax and spending policies descend from a clear blue sky without debate, the party stands ready to salute. Moves away from the centre ground and back to the right are instigated, and the party follows. More charismatic than recent leaders, Mr Cameron will have greater authority as he paints his picture, but the Conservative Party has never been a nightmare to lead. It has just been poorly led.

The media plays its part in making life relatively easy for a Conservative leader. The right-wing newspapers have had a large role in British politics since 1997, but they have lacked a political party to make the most of their propaganda. If Mr Cameron is an early success (and I predict the Conservatives will be ahead in the polls by the new year) some papers will not be able to contain their excitement.

The BBC, more scared of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph than of the Government, will go out of its way to reassure those newspapers that they recognise that the Conservative Party is back. I place emphasis on the media because in opposition the verdicts of the newspapers matter hugely. Mr Cameron cannot implement policies so voters will make an assessment on the basis of what they read in the newspapers. The verdicts of newspapers will frame perceptions of his television performances.

I note also that Mr Cameron possesses a quality that is central to leadership in modern Britain where the media oscillates wildly from hailing political leaders one month as messiahs to dismissing them the next as lying bastards. He shows signs of being able to keep his feet firmly on the ground. The new leader did not panic during the summer when his campaign appeared to be doomed, and has shown no signs of arrogance during his astonishing rise. Throughout this bizarre leadership contest, he has retained a determined and focused calm.

These are preconditions to success in a leader, but are not enough in themselves. In opposition, a leader and party must come together and appear to speak for Britain, or so much of it that an election victory becomes possible. This is where Mr Cameron's contradictory victory speech acquires significance.

The dynamic new leader and his party work still on the assumption that tax cuts and big improvements in public services are possible. Indeed on a range of policies the Conservatives are big spenders and supporters of an active state. They are both tax cutters and big spenders, advocates of a small state with plans to do a lot in government. Mr Cameron will struggle to resolve these contradictions. Any leader would struggle. They are beyond resolution.

These confusions manifest themselves already in their early attacks on Gordon Brown. Yesterday, Mr Cameron suggested that the Chancellor was the "road block to reform". The day before, the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, argued that Mr Brown was a reckless public spender. As I pointed out yesterday, Mr Brown is planning a bucketload of reforms and the toughest public spending round in recent times. There are charges that can be made against the Chancellor but these ones will not stick.

The Conservatives have finally elected a leader who recognises that the best way of opposing Tony Blair is to support him. They must be equally subtle in their approach to Mr Brown, which means they must decide first what they believe to be the role and size of a modern state. A few unthinking Blairites brief destructively that Mr Brown is "anti-reform", but the Conservatives will need more astute intelligence in their parallel efforts to destroy Labour's chances at the next election.

While the Conservatives have not yet developed the right line of attack on the Chancellor, there are signs that Labour is misfiring too. Several Labour MPs rushed on to the television screens yesterday to argue that this was the same old nasty Tory party. They are wrong. The Conservatives have elected their first leader since 1997 who understands the art of opposition. Mr Cameron, however, is still a long way from leading a party that is ready for power.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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