Peter Oborne

At last the Tories are setting the political agenda, and Blair is running scared

At last the Tories are setting the political agenda, and Blair is running scared

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Shortly before Christmas last year I went off to write a book about a malign modern trend, the rise of political lying. Regrettably, during the two months I have been absent, the lying has continued unabated. In other respects, however, British politics has changed.

Back in December there was a widespread assumption, bordering on certainty, that Tony Blair was heading for a third successive landslide victory. You could tell this by the way the two parties were conducting themselves in public. In the case of New Labour, the real battle was the contest to succeed Tony Blair on some indeterminate date after the general election, while the election itself was taken for granted.

Among the Tories it was abject gloom. Michael Howard, who looked tired, was written off. It was clear that there was going to be a great Liberal Democrat revival at the election, but nobody seriously thought that the Conservatives would add more than a handful of seats. Thoughts were therefore turning towards a summer leadership election between the home affairs spokesman David Davis and Liam Fox, the party chairman. I went to a Christmas party attended by a large number of Tory grandees in central London in mid-December, the talk was of how Davis and Fox would insist that Michael Howard went at once after the election defeat, rather than allow him to stay on and give time for David Cameron, allegedly Howard’s chosen successor, to emerge. This left a distasteful sense of starving men fighting for the few remaining scraps of flesh on a corpse. It was very gloomy indeed, although the champagne was excellent.

When I returned to Westminster last week I felt like Rip Van Winkle, so much has changed. There is a sense of purpose, bustle, competence and self-belief among the Tories. The defeatism has gone and the Conservative party is now at the heart of the national agenda in a way that has not been the case for 15 years. On every side it is setting the terms for national argument and debate.

This became obvious when the Conservatives announced their immigration policy five weeks ago. The move was criticised by the so-called ‘modernisers’, the twitchy congregation of Blair-fancying Tories who have discovered their spiritual home in the Times newspaper. But it was welcomed by voters, as the Prime Minister’s political consultant Philip Gould instantly reported back to Downing Street, which promptly saw the point and panicked. At the last moment Tony Blair was forced to add a ‘sixth pledge’ to the modest five he had planned to unveil at Labour’s Gateshead spring conference. New proposals from the Conservatives for discipline in schools had a similar effect on Ruth Kelly, the already embattled Education Secretary. She swiftly unveiled a copycat response. Again and again — on health service reform, childcare proposals, elected police authorities, the European constitution, immigration quotas, householder protection and now last week’s council tax proposals — the Conservative party has set the terms and dictated the agenda, with the government lagging along afterwards.

For the last decade the Conservative party has suffered from low self-esteem. It has allowed itself to be convinced, like so many others, of the superiority of New Labour. There was a conceptual muddle at the heart of all this. The Tories confounded success with virtue. This meant that they suffered twice over, once for failure and once for being morally worthless. Actually the two things are by no means identical, and sometimes contradictory, but many Tories could not see this. This made them prone to self-hatred, and useless.

This year the Conservative party has made a discovery. If they work on it, it could yet take them far. There is no shame and much glory in a Conservative message, honestly delivered. If the Conservative party acts according to its instinctive beliefs, and ceases to worship fashion and ephemeral success, it will in due course return to power. Over the last two months the Conservative party has been true to itself, struck a chord with the electorate, and as a result has dominated the political agenda.

It would nevertheless be idle to pretend that certain technical reasons do not lurk behind the change of mood. Tory MPs allege that Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign adviser hired last autumn, has introduced a new crispness and dynamism.

The second technical reason is the clear-headed strategy of the shadow chancellor, Oliver Letwin. For a large part of last year Letwin was in the doghouse with colleagues, who felt a natural frustration that he refused to let them make spending commitments. But now this self-denying strategy is paying off. The James report — its programme of bureaucratic cost-cutting is another thing which New Labour has frantically promised to copy — has done its job. Letwin is using the money intelligently. Only a relatively small amount of the money which has been liberated, some £4 billion, has been allocated to tax cuts. Most is allocated elsewhere — for instance, on more policemen on the beat and on defence spending — driving home the point that Tories are more than a group of demented free-marketeers. Above all, Letwin’s thoughtful plans are credible and not disputed by independent bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Letwin has given Michael Howard a priceless boon: a serious platform on which to fight the election.

The other two parties are in trouble. I still expect Charles Kennedy and his Liberal Democrats to pick up seats in the general election, but for the time being they have gone to ground. The Labour strategy is forlorn. The two campaign managers, Alan Milburn and Alastair Campbell, are facing a fundamental problem. They are determined to win the 2005 general election on their own terms. This means that they will not use Gordon Brown, Labour’s greatest electoral asset, who has consequently embarked on a series of mysterious foreign trips, the latest one to China.

Meanwhile Campbell and Milburn are set on running a presidential-style campaign on behalf of Tony Blair, as if he were still the election winner he undoubtedly was in 1997 and 2001. This strategy is failing, as could readily have been predicted. Last week’s ICM poll in the Guardian has yet to be franked by other data, but may turn out to be indicative. It is not just the 3 per cent Tory rise to 34 per cent, and corresponding 3 per cent New Labour fall to 37 per cent, though that is significant enough. The really fascinating comparison is with the ICM poll in February 2001, the equivalent point before the last general election. This showed New Labour on 47 per cent and the Tories on 31 per cent, a massive 16 per cent advantage and the contest over before it had begun. That is not the case this time round. Michael Howard will not win on 5 May. But a fascinating prospect is beginning to present itself: a continued Tory revival leading to panic at New Labour high command and Gordon Brown sweeping in to save the day for Tony Blair.