Mark Pritchard MP: Conservative MPs must remain cool under fire
The summer of 2007 is the season for the Conservative Party to hold its nerve - ensuring that the discipline and unity enjoyed by the Party over the last twelve months continues. Why? Because the Labour lead in the opinion polls is likely to widen over the next few weeks - and possibly continue for several months. Whilst it is true that the Labour revival has mostly been at the cost of the Liberal Democrats, with Conservative support remaining fairly steady on 36/37 points, it is likely that some softer Conservative support will also switch to Labour over the coming weeks. The Chancellor’s media packaging has already made some advances – distancing Blair’s ‘old’ Labour – and reinventing a ‘new Brown’. A political paradox which is as intriguing as it is unsustainable.
Brown’s poll progress is also a combination of the Coronation Story, the media has certainly waited long enough for the carriage to arrive; Brown’s increased Prime Ministerial designate media profile and, to be expected, the corresponding temporary decline in Cameron’s own media coverage. Brown’s media dominance is likely to continue for some while - with the announcement of successive eye-catching policies, most having been worked on for months in preparation for their ‘summer release’ - all helpfully wrapped in the union flag – Brown’s union flag!
The good news for the Conservative Party is that, despite this poll bounce, Gordon Brown is not a risk taker - and unless the polls give Labour a six to eight point lead, consistently, over several autumn months, Brown is unlikely to call a snap general election. Moreover, with Brown’s big tent strategy collapsing quicker than an end of season Billy Smart circus tent, it is unlikely that an early election deal can now be struck with the embarrassed and weakened Liberal Democrats. A 2008 general election outright victory, or more likely a 2009 general election, is what will now be concentrating Labour strategists’ minds. That is, assuming Ming Campbell remains.
The Labour task is difficult – but not impossible. Delivering Brown a small, but working, government majority will probably mean a more radical Brown - more radical than will make Brown himself feel comfortable, but for some this will mean a more attractive and unpredictable Brown – not predictable. Brown will be all out to win, and policies, whether from left or right, as long as they catch the media’s eye and recapture Labour’s lost core vote, alongside policies that appeal to middle England, will be the order of each and every day. Spurned by the Liberal Democrats, Brown is free to set his own agenda. The Paddy/Ming rejection may have inadvertently given Brown the very political courage he lacked. Brown can still build his new politics rainbow but in his own colours. Brown will be able to take all the credit – but there will be few to blame. Cometh the summer – cometh neo-Brown.
The prospect between a Labour election winning lead opening up and being maintained long enough to provide more electoral options for Brown will be in part down to the summer discipline exercised by Conservative MPs – coupled with how quickly the media tire of old Brown in new clothing. The reaction and response of Conservative MPs under fire in the polls will helpfully inform Brown’s election timetable and reward Conservative MPs accordingly. Conservative MPs must remain cool under fire.
As Brown unveils attractive policies, the response from Conservative MPs should not be "where are our policies?", these will come in time - as the conclusions from the policy commissions are debated, dropped or agreed. Instead Conservatives must ensure that these policies are challenged head-on. Asking can they really work and be delivered – whether they will strengthen the economy; improve security and the fight against terrorism; provide the type of armed forces to face the challenges of the twenty first century; whether the right balance has been struck between ensuring a prosperous economy and fighting climate change; will Gordon Brown continue with health service reforms – and what will it mean for pensioners and for the size of the government’s hand in people’s pockets? The Conservative's summer perspective - should be outward not inward.
Over the next few weeks, Brown’s premiership will inevitably enjoy a honeymoon period and the media will want to ‘sell’ the story of freshness, early success, and to distance Brown from Blair’s failings – something many of the culpable media are more than keen to do. By expunging Brown from Blair’s mistakes the media will try to exonerate themselves from their own headlong rush into the Iraq war. This is the media’s opportunity for a fresh start - as much as it is about Brown’s new narrative. But once this phoney-reformation and mutual love-in has passed, the media will recall that Brown, despite his prostrate listening, is part of the problem not part of the solution. In waiting for this moment, the Conservative Party would do well to recount the old Jewish proverb: ‘that a house divided amongst itself will fall’. Brown’s Nixon ‘tricky dickey’ smile cannot hold forever – and neither will Labour’s poll lead.
Related link: ConservativeHome's own 'fasten your seat belts' message