Even from his holiday home in Crete, David Cameron will be able to sense the waves of schism and confusion which engulf his party this week. Parliament is not sitting, yet the grammar schools row has already triggered one shadow ministerial resignation, with the threat of more to come. It is enough to make Gordon Brown’s allies salivate: the Tories have been pole-axed by a news story which originated in their own head office. How will they cope with the tricks which the next Prime Minister has in store?
Until now, the Cameron machine has faced remarkably little hostile fire. Mr Brown had urged an all-out assault from the very beginning, but was vetoed by Mr Blair. When No. 10 Downing Street eventually did put together an attack advert, depicting Mr Cameron as a chameleon on a bicycle, it was risibly ineffective. Since then the Prime Minister has hardly bothered, focusing on his own legacy rather than attacking the party most likely to protect it.
Mr Brown, too, has had bigger fish to decapitate. For years his overriding objective has been to stop plausible candidates challenging him for the Labour party leadership. Even Treasury business has come a distant second. The furore about pensions, for example, caught him unawares because his allies were focusing on lining up unpleasant surprises for David Miliband, in the event that the Environment Secretary might decide to run. Now that the leadership is his, Mr Brown can devote his undivided attention to Mr Cameron.
The pantomime over grammar schools has exposed both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Tory communications division. We have seen that Mr Cameron can get a story going, which is more than can be said for his immediate predecessors. When he, or one of his lieutenants, makes a big speech, people turn up, and the press covers it. And if there is a little bust-up of some kind — or a Norman Tebbit figure declaring this is not his old Tory party — well, so much the better.
But two essential disciplines continue to elude Mr Cameron: guiding the trajectory of a story, and shutting it down should it spin out of control. Having secured the nation’s attention, Mr Cameron missed an extraordinary opportunity to explain why school choice is a more powerful tool of social mobility than selection. David Willetts’s original speech was intended to be a showcase for the Tory alternative; instead it gave the impression of triggering a Tory civil war. By the middle of last week Mr Cameron’s aides privately accepted that the whole thing had been a disaster which caught them unawares.
But the story stayed in the news, and kept getting worse. For this he can thank Graham Brady, the now-departed shadow Foreign Office minister, who felt able to speak openly about the case for grammar schools, in open defiance of party policy. In 2005 Howard Flight lost not just his job but his seat, for a much less flagrant and public transgression. Yet Mr Brady simply resigned after a few days, in order to resume his attack at a later date. Even those who agree with him see the implications for party discipline. He was allowed to jump in his own time. He should have been pushed, immediately.
So when Mr Cameron finally comes up against Mr Brown — what then? Last year the shadow Cabinet held a private meeting at the Royal Society of Arts to ask exactly this. By the end of the seminar Mr Cameron — to his credit — reflected on the formidable qualities of his future opponent. Mr Brown may be easy to tease and caricature, but he is an accomplished political warrior who, unlike Mr Blair, will go for the jugular. He will miss no opportunity to remind the electorate — however subliminally — that the Tory front bench has reverted to type and, to adapt Macmillan’s gag, once again boasts more Etonians than Estonians. He will revel in the negative campaigning that Mr Blair has discouraged since Mr Cameron took the helm.
As an obsessive student of American politics, Mr Brown will also have learnt from the techniques used in the last presidential campaign. The Republicans may not have gone for Senator John Kerry directly, but other groups — such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — mercilessly questioned his Vietnam record. The Kerry campaign did not take this operation seriously until the campaign had been running for three weeks. Here was a new species of political attack, against which the Democrats had no readily available defence.
Mr Cameron knows he is open to charges of hypocrisy, however unfair. He bitterly regrets having a chauffeur follow him on his bicycle, and considers it the single most damaging episode of his time as leader. But there could be worse to come, and not only the still unanswered questions about his youthful drug use. He promises to ‘tackle’ aviation growth, yet his own use of private jets (including one recent flight for the 93-mile journey from Oxford to Hereford) is ripe for Brownite scrutiny.
George Osborne leads the optimists. Having been shadow Chancellor for two years, he has found a way of getting under Mr Brown’s skin. And if the Treasury’s spin skills are so formidable, why did an autocue obscure the Chancellor’s face during the television coverage of his campaign launch? Don’t the polls show he is already an unpopular and over-familiar figure? And who would deny that Mr Cameron would fare better in a head-to-head debate?
Mr Cameron is fond of saying that he has no Alastair Campbell figure in Conservative headquarters because he will run his government fundamentally differently. He won the Tory leadership contest without kowtowing to Fleet Street, he argues, and can win the next election without having to do so. Nonetheless his search for a high-flying media figure continues. Those approached so far have politely refused — a pattern which, in itself, tells you something about Mr Cameron’s current share price and the reluctance of senior journalists to stake their careers on his electoral success.
These last few weeks have been laden with lessons for Mr Cameron. The time for staging fights with his party — over tax, hoodies or selective education — has ended. He now needs to devote his energies to explaining his intentions to his parliamentary colleagues and the country. There may well be three years to go until the next general election, but just four weeks until Mr Brown gets settled into No. 10. And then, the real fight will finally begin.