Conservative Diary

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For the first time since Margaret Thatcher's 1987 election victory, the Conservatives are going into a campaign with a clear poll lead

Nick Wood begins his daily 'High Noon' posting for the General Election campaign.

"It was nauseating. It was breathtakingly, toe-curlingly hog-wimperingly tasteless. It was unbelievably ill-judged. If the Prime Minister sanctioned the arrangements for this dire event and if here is a Hell he will go there."

That was Matthew Parris in The Times being less than complimentary about Tony Blair's decision to launch the 2001 election campaign in a speech to 600 "bare-kneed, pigtailed London schoolgirls".

According to Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail, one girl covered her head with a pullover and another said "bunch of lies, he's a big crook".

At the time, I was press secretary to William Hague and running the media side of the war-room with my dear friend Amanda Platell. More than once, we had cause to reflect that the press coverage of the 2001 campaign was far more encouraging than the brutal state of public opinion.

Blair did not go to Hell and the perceptive political insights of the schoolgirls were sadly not widely shared. 2001 was the high watermark of Labour's popularity. It was before Iraq, before Dr David Kelly, and long before the most spectacular economic bust of modern times. Labour went on to win by 9 percentage points (Labour 41, Conservatives 32).

The polls of 2001 bear some repetition. On the day Blair explained himself to the girls of a south London school, NOP had Labour on 51, the Conservatives on 31 and the Lib Dems on 13. The following day Gallup had Labour on 49, the Conservatives on 32 and the Lib Dems on 13. Mori was even worse: Labour 54, Conservatives 30 and the Lib Dems on 13.

For all the frantic activity in David Cameron's Millbank war-room today - and the wobbles, panics and blazing rows that will surely erupt across the party machines over the next four weeks - one is tempted to conclude how much things have changed for the Tories over the intervening decade.

For the first time since Margaret Thatcher's 1987 election victory, the Conservatives are going into a campaign with a clear poll lead. All Cameron has to do is translate that advantage into votes at the ballot box.

He has made a good start. After a listless first three months of the year, Cameron and Co have started landing punches. The National Insurance cut has wrong-footed Labour, creating the delicious spectacle of money-mad Peter Mandelson falling out with his wealthy business friends. Intransigent trade union leaders are back on our TV screens, giving the country a timely reminder why five more years of Gordon Brown remains an unappetising prospect.

Chris Grayling has committed a minor gaffe. Cameron has been wise not to turn a drama into a crisis.

6a00d83451b31c69e201347f9d38bc970c-500wi But Labour has scored a far more obvious own goal with its depiction of Dave as the 80s cult TV hero DCI Gene Hunt. "Fire up the Quattro; it's time for change," is the slogan of the campaign so far.

And the forthcoming confirmation of a tax break for marriage will surely lift Tory spirits and poll ratings.

But perhaps most important of all, Cameron is taking the fight to Labour. Brown's record - worthy of a life sentence from even the most indulgent of our hand-wringing judges - is squarely in the spotlight. And with their bovver boots poster, the Saatchi brothers are clearly out to reprise the 1992 campaign when the country shied away from a future full of Labour tax rises.

Ultimately, elections are won by the party who can most attractively portray the future. That is Cameron's challenge for the next month. But he need not apologise for occasionally reminding us what a catastrophic government we have endured these past 13 years.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners Ltd.

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