Leading article: The tectonic plates below British politics are shifting

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair gave a speech yesterday in which he insisted that civil servants must "learn from business". David Cameron, meanwhile, was accusing his own party of failing to appreciate the hard work done by public-sector employees. You know we are living in interesting times when a Labour Prime Minister comes to bury the public service ethos and a Conservative leader to praise it. And, as our poll of polls today confirms, the tectonic plates below British politics are indeed shifting. For the first time since 1992, the Conservative Party has a consistent lead in the key indicators of public opinion.

The Tory leader can take a good deal of credit for this sea change. Since he won the leadership six months ago, Mr Cameron has been a dazzling success in many ways. He has successfully shifted the party's focus from immigration and crime to unfamiliar Tory territory such as the environment and "quality of life" issues. He has also sought to project a more humane and likeable image than previous Tory leaders. As the polls show, this new approach is drawing the approval of voters.

But the Conservatives still have an enormous distance to cover. Voters have warmed to Mr Cameron, but they remain suspicious of his party. There needs to be evidence that the Tories have changed - and this is not helped by resistance to sensible attempts to make the parliamentary party more representative of the country at large. The local party in Bromley and Chislehurst chose a candidate to fight the upcoming by-election who was not on the list of Mr Cameron's preferred candidates. Although senior party figures claim that this is not a setback, they are wrong. This was a missed opportunity to pick a fight that needs to be fought.

Then there are the policy issues. Attempts by the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, to square his party's new priority of "economic stability" with its traditional focus on tax cuts have been unconvincing, while crude attempts to spin in different directions backfired. And there are many traps lying in wait for Mr Cameron when the party reviews start to report back. How, for example, will he square his party's Euroscepticism with his own concern for the environment, when the European Union is clearly the institution best placed to push through many environmental protection measures?

Yet the Tories can draw some encouragement from the fact that governments lose elections, as much as oppositions win them. The Tory boost in the polls is in large part due to growing disaffection with Labour, along with its inability to respond to Mr Cameron's bold attempts to move the political agenda on to new ground. Labour gives the impression that it is more concerned with questions of leadership than the dreary business of governing. Meanwhile on the ground, from tax credits to the processing of foreign prisoners, everything seems to be going wrong. Nearly all the recent problems to have afflicted the Government have sprung not from failures of policy, but a lack of competence. This has not escaped the notice of the electorate. And, of course, the nightmare in Iraq continues to overshadow everything this administration does.

Amid this flux, the Liberal Democrats appear increasingly irrelevant under the insipid leadership of Sir Menzies Campbell. The doomsayers' verdict that the party has blown its best chance in decades to redraw the political map appears more and more convincing.

As things stand - and they can change fast - we are, sadly, returning to the world of two-party politics. The message for the Government is clear. Unless the party gets a grip on government, resolves its internal differences and works out where it is going, New Labour's days could be numbered, whoever is running the show.

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