Steve Richards: Talk of an early election has only served to help David Cameron unify his party

Even if Brown does not go in autumn, the election story will continue to run and not to Labour’s benefit’
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The Independent Online

Probably he does not feel as if luck is on his side this week, but David Cameron is the most fortunate figure in British politics. As a result of the never-ending speculation about a possible autumn election the Conservatives have decided to behave themselves.

Do not believe that all this election talk is bad news for the Conservatives. On the contrary the pre-election fever gives their leader an unexpected opportunity. From a very low point Mr Cameron benefits whether an election is called this year or not.

Take away the prospects of an autumn election and this conference would have been far more problematic for the Conservative leader. It might well have been a nightmare. Over the summer I spoke to several Shadow Cabinet ministers who were fuming about the direction of the party's policy review and their concerns that they were playing only a marginal role in the process. Such conversations would have continued in the bars and hotels in Blackpool this week prompting news stories of seething discontent that would fuel further destabilising activity. Now their peripheral roles in a policy review are more or less the last matter of concern for those that sit uneasily on the Front Bench. After all they might have an election to fight next week.

Similarly a few backbench MPs were ready to stir this week. Some on the party's left despair about what they regard as a lurch to the right. Plenty on the right want to see a further lurch. They are all silent now. None of them want to be seen rocking the boat overtly in advance of an election. Some of them have only just been re-selected by their constituencies on the assumption that an election looms.

As a result a subdued unity prevails at the conference. Speakers are cheered. Fringe meetings are polite. The powerful Conservative-supporting newspapers are rallying around. They would have kicked Mr Cameron around this week in different circumstances, but with a possible election looming the smallest of policies are hailed uncritically as part of an impressive fight back.

If there had been no election fever Mr Cameron would have been facing the severe consequences of his early fuzzy strategy. His speeches in the first year of his leadership were a tentative hybrid. The first half of many of them were a compelling progressive analysis of Britain's failings, the need for a higher quality of life including in the work place, the importance of addressing the causes of crime, the centrality of the environment.

The second half tended to offer orthodox right wing solutions, a smaller state, tax cuts, less regulation. As John Prescott might have said the speeches were an attempt to place traditional Tory polices in a modern setting. But they were very much an early attempt. Mr Cameron could not credibly explain how for example he would improve the quality of life in the work place and at the same time reduce regulation.

Yet some on Mr Cameron's right only paid attention to his progressive analysis and wilfully ignored the second half of his speeches where many of his solutions were closer to their beliefs. Some progressives did not notice the right wing solutions either and are disappointed now that some of the progressive solutions from the policy reviews are dropped.

At best this is a messy political situation for an opposition party half way through a parliament, but the messiness is obscured. We might not be half way through a parliament, but at the very end. Mr Cameron has a chance in his speech tomorrow to pull together the loose strands and head for an election.

If that proves to be the case Mr Cameron is even luckier. For leaders of the opposition the second half of a parliament is much more difficult compared with the first. In the first half opposition leaders are a novelty. When they make speeches, give interviews, issue press releases and take part in photo calls they appear to make waves.

But there is a limit to the appeal of impotent powerlessness. In the second half of a parliament the media and voters lose interest or view with more scepticism the recycling of previously announced policies. Most leaders of the opposition who serve a full parliamentary term lose the election that follows. Look at Neil Kinnock and William Hague. Those who become leaders at a later stage of a parliament fare better, Harold Wilson in 1964, Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Tony Blair in 1997.

Under normal circumstances Mr Cameron would face another wearying 18 months before an election, another one and a half years of photo calls dismissed as gimmicks, speeches trying to bring together both wings of his party, interviews in which he desperately tries to come upon a new initiative. I am sure as matters stand Mr Cameron would give a lot for more time, but in my view Gordon Brown will come to his rescue by announcing a November election and end his first period of opposition.

What happens to Mr Cameron if there is an early election? There is an assumption that if Labour wins big he is doomed. But even in these bleakest of circumstances for the Tories he could argue that his party lost in the most unusual situation, a new Prime Minister cutting and running. Anyway who else is there to take over? Would the Liam Fox era get pulses racing across the country? Would William Hague retain the popularity he acquired only once he had ceased to become leader? If Labour wins with the same majority or less, the momentum would be with the Tories and Mr Cameron would be safe.

Conversely if Mr Brown does not call an autumn election the political mood will change subtly. The change might not be deep but it will be significant. Mr Cameron will claim that Mr Brown had bottled it partly because of the "Conservative fight back". I suspect some newspapers would not be thrilled either. Instead of pouring vitriol over Mr Cameron's leadership they might target Mr Brown and his entourage for their indecisive fuelling of the election story. If Mr Brown does not go in the autumn the election story will continue to run and not necessarily to Labour's benefit.

None of the fundamentals have changed as a result of the election fever. Mr Brown dominates the political landscape and is a far more formidable opponent for the Conservatives compared with Tony Blair in his final phase. The Conservatives as a party remain unsure of their political purpose and do not feel in Blackpool like a force on the verge of power.

Mr Brown's allies calculate that the fever has forced the Conservatives to rush out policies. This is correct, but the likes of George Osborne have not done so recklessly. I sense in quite profound ways the election fever helps Mr Cameron. The Brownites, normally the sharpest strategists in the jungle, have offered the Conservative leader an unlikely lifeline.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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