The House of Commons has scarcely been back a week and already opportunities are falling from the sky for David Cameron. Government failures are spectacular and ubiquitous. Prisons are overflowing, hospital wards are closing and unemployment is rising. Casualty rates are high in Afghanistan and Britain has effectively lost Basra to warring militias. On every front Labour looks embattled, exhausted — and there for the taking.
This is happening at a rather inconvenient time for the Conservatives. It has not yet finished its image makeover, the policy review is a year away and Mr Cameron is adamant that he will not bring forward the timetable. But, at Tory headquarters, there is an acceptance that firm proposals are needed to take on an imploding government. The strategy is quietly changing and a stream of policies is being discreetly produced for release over the next few months.
Thanks mainly to his obstinacy — and the public loyalty that has enabled him to stand his ground — the man with the most ammunition is David Davis. Now in his third year as shadow home secretary, he saved his old policies from Mr Cameron’s ideological purge and has for years been calling for more prisons to be built. It is the ideal rebuke to the scandalous transfer of inmates to police cells now that British prisons have been declared full. Here is a long-standing Tory policy, demonstrably better than Labour’s.
Alongside this, mini-policies are being produced — intended as a sample of what a Tory government would do. Take, for example, the proposal to abolish income tax for armed forces on active duty. It oozed Tory values: a respect for the military and an instinct to cut tax. When the idea was adopted by Gordon Brown last Tuesday, one saw what happens to Tory meals which are served up too early. On the other hand, the original concept was vindicated and Mr Cameron managed to hoover up enough of the credit on the bulletins.
The Brown–Cameron ideas exchange can work both ways, as was demonstrated last week when the Conservatives adopted the Chancellor’s dreadful idea to grant the National Health Service freedom from ministerial control. The attraction for Mr Brown is that this would kill NHS reform stone dead, so why a Conservative government would want to do the same is ideologically baffling. Still, the opinion polls show that on a personal level Mr Cameron is now more trusted to run the NHS than Mr Brown. For many of the Cameroons, this result is good enough.
More ambitious plans are being hatched on two fronts. I have learnt that Mr Cameron is planning an official trip to Darfur — a visit which will surprise those who thought he intended to steer away from international intervention. In his party conference speech last week, Mr Cameron made the briefest of mentions of the situation, declaring ‘we must not stand by and watch further genocide in Darfur’.
It was an echo of Tony Blair’s pledge to the 2001 Labour party conference that if the Rwandan genocide happened again ‘we would have a moral duty to act there’. But the Prime Minister does not make such declarations nowadays, his good intentions having sunk in the quagmire of the United Nations. For as long as China has both a financial stake in Sudanese oilfields and a veto on military action, there will be no meaningful UN position on Darfur.
While the Prime Minister has drawn a veil over Sudan, Mr Cameron intends to make it a campaigning issue. There will not be a visit to Darfur, I am told, without the party having something substantial to announce. It is unlikely that Mr Cameron will become the first Conservative prime minister since Salisbury to send troops to Sudan, but it is an area in which he believes he can showcase the new Conservative foreign policy.
At home, perhaps his largest gamble will be on family policy. Ten years after pro-family legislation transformed welfare dependency in America, the Conservatives are bracing themselves to enact a similar revolution in Britain. ‘But how do you promote the family without discriminating against single mothers?’ asked John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, at the Labour party conference. It is impossible to do so, which is why Labour cannot proceed with this agenda. Mr Cameron’s aides predict that he is ready to be denounced for penalising lone parents, and intends to become the most pro-family Tory leader for a generation. Talk of transferable tax allowances is just the start of this agenda.
The more thoughtful Labour ministers can already see its enemy changing. In his article on Mr Cameron on page 20, David Miliband adopts a new line of attack. Rather than portray the Conservative leader as a public relations lightweight with no policies, the Environment Secretary accepts that there are indeed Tory ideas — but useless ones. Mr Cameron should be delighted: he is being upgraded from irrelevant to dangerous.
Of course, had Mr Miliband not invested so much time pledging fealty to Mr Brown in the last fortnight, he would not have dared write the article. Labour remains so unstable as a party that any senior minister who discusses broader points of politics is suspected of being a leadership candidate. It is striking to hear allies of John Reid, the Home Secretary, say that there would be more prison places had Mr Brown provided funding. All this plays straight into Conservative hands.
Yet there is one area where Labour could have the field to itself. In asking Muslim women not to wear the veil, Jack Straw has opened a debate which transcends party politics. Privately, Mr Cameron disagrees with Mr Straw but declines to say so in public (unlike Oliver Letwin who took issue with Mr Straw on last week’s Question Time). This is an argument on which the Tory leader feels his party should not be drawn.
Events may overtake him. Tensions over multiculturalism are rapidly growing and Mr Straw has raised an issue more real to the British public than any soap opera being played out in Westminster. Mr Brown and Mr Reid both understand the power of this subject — hence their interest in (respectively) Britishness and controlling immigration. Everything may be going wrong in government, and the Tories may be gathering strength. But for a beleaguered Labour government, declaring such a cultural war might just provide the perfect diversion.