The Tories are gradually chipping away at Teflon Tony

'But Mr Duncan Smith continues to be hobbled by the reminders of past Conservative sleaze'
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"Labour's worst week", screamed the headlines in most newspapers after the twin débâcles of "Garbagegate" and the removal of the spin doctors Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith from the Department of Transport. But does anybody out there care? Apparently not, if the latest poll from ICM is to be believed. Just what does it take to get anything to stick to "Teflon Tony"?

So far, it would appear that the Prime Minister has got off lightly from the fallout, with Labour actually up two points at 47 per cent, with the Tories stuck at 30 per cent. Meanwhile, the squeaky-clean Liberal Democrats have actually fallen to 18 per cent.

The figures make depressing reading for the opposition parties, and are likely to encourage the Government in its nonchalant attitude to the Mittal affair. Who inside Downing Street will now be willing to concede that there is anything to worry about so long as the punters out there remain unmoved? The results lend credibility to the theory that both these sagas are of interest only to the journalists and politicians confined to the Westminster beltway. As Alastair Campbell scans the latest polls and internal focus groups, he can almost be forgiven for his weekend response of "boring" to incessant questions from hacks.

To some extent, the issue reminds me of the Westland helicopter crisis of 1986, which caused the most monumental fuss in Westminster – with the bonus of Michael Heseltine's resignation – but left the public completely unmoved. Here was an occasion that even threatened the survival of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, and yet the then Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock, made absolutely no progress in capitalising on the crisis, and not just because of his inept performance at the dispatch box.

The general public seems to see the recent scandals in the same terms as the Bernie Ecclestone affair, the Mandelson home-loan scandal, and the Hinduja passport issue that led to Mr Mandelson's second resignation from the Government a year ago.

The common thread seems to be that while all these issues get journalists and politicians in a great froth, for the voters, they have absolutely nothing to do with the price of bread. Ultimately, the electorate needs to be hurt by politicians in government before it will seek retribution at the polls. The only issue during Mr Blair's five years at the helm to have given him serious cause for electoral concern was the fuel crisis that brought the country to a near standstill for several days in the autumn of 2000. For the only time in a decade, the polls recorded a small Tory lead.

So can Mr Blair and his henchmen rest on their laurels, and should the Conservative and Liberal Democrats be unduly depressed? As long as the economy keeps ticking over under the Midas touch of Gordon Brown, there may be little that opposition parties can do, in the short term, to make any impact. That is not to say they should also rest on their laurels. They must take advantage of opportunities, such as have occurred in the past fortnight; otherwise they are prey to attack for not doing their proper job of scrutinising government.

Unlike Mr Kinnock with Margaret Thatcher on Westland, Iain Duncan Smith managed to get the Prime Minister to lose his cool in the Commons and respond with "Garbagegate", a word that conjures up sleaze and stench and may yet boomerang on Mr Blair. But Mr Duncan Smith continues to be hobbled by reminders of Tory sleaze, which may account for the fact that the issue does not play well in the polls. Mr Blair's return quip that one Tory (Jonathan Aitken) had recently been let out of jail while another (Jeffrey Archer) was still in jail, gave the Prime Minister a cheap, below the belt, shot at the Tories.

So the Tories have made some minor progress. Mr Duncan Smith should worry less about the headline polls and take greater comfort from the fact that a weekend poll showed that the public thought Labour was even sleazier than the Tories. Whereas the Tories were once perceived as the sleazy party, Mr Blair's own catalogue of catastrophe on sleaze means that both parties are now regarded as sleazy as each other. In the tit-for-tat currency of British political debate this does not, on its own, advance the case for the Tories, but reinforces the disengagement of the public from the whole process and increases the likelihood of even greater apathy.

There have, however, been other incremental gains for the Tories that show that they are learning the difficult art of opposition that they never mastered under William Hague. And there has been another new star who – along with Oliver Letwin, the home affairs spokesman – has passed the competence test on the Opposition front bench.

Theresa May, the shadow transport spokeswoman, has had an excellent war, and showed her mettle over the Jo Moore affair. She called for Ms Moore's removal last September and has plugged away at the transport brief, which she understands far better than her previous portfolio (education), with doggedness and determination. She presents the feminine face the Tories so desperately require on the airwaves, and her sure-footedness may yet yield her the scalp of Stephen Byers. Admittedly, she has been luckier in facing Mr Byers than when she crossed swords with David Blunkett at education before the last election.

The extraordinary losers have been the Liberal Democrats, who have, surprisingly, actually fallen in popularity. One might have expected them to capitalise strongly on the theme of "a plague on both your houses". There has, however, been virtual silence from Charles Kennedy on Garbagegate and the war of the spin doctors. Similarly, Paddy Ashdown pulled his punches during the Bernie Ecclestone affair early in the last Parliament. That was explained because the Liberal Democrats were closer to Labour and were still in the business of working together for devolution and electoral reform. The behind-the-scenes talk then was of mergers and pacts, with Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown still in the early stages of their mutual love affair. The love affair may be over, but by his silence Mr Kennedy has lost an opportunity to realise his stated aim of replacing the Tories as the "effective opposition".

The conclusion from all this seems to be that the public does not punish a government so long as it appears to be competent and united, with the economic feelgood factor still in play. That certainly explained Baroness Thatcher's recovery from the Westland crisis and all those long-forgotten spy scandals. But the moment the Tories lost their reputation for economic competence and people started feeling the personal pain of high interest rates and mortgage repossessions, the game was up. Added to this a Cabinet split, and the sleaze factor became the icing on the cake for the then Labour Opposition.

So the Tories still need to wait for the Government to foul up on the issues that touch the general public. But if the internal engine room of government is already blowing gaskets, this could be the start of those very foul-ups.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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