In his column for the News of the World (not online), Fraser Nelson awards gold, silver and bronze awards to the three people he credits for the Tory position in the polls:
David Cameron gets Fraser's bronze medal: "He's sharpened up and looks likeable and electable... But he hasn't explained what he'd do for Britain." We'd be a little bit more generous to David Cameron. The party does have a good number of positive reasons for voting Conservative. Not enough yet - that's true - but there's plenty of time to provide them before the 2010 General Election.
Lord Ashcroft, the man Labour love to hate, gets Fraser's silver award because of his marginal seats initiative: "His team sits in a corner of Tory HQ, a law unto themselves. And the best-run part of that often shambolic operation." Fraser overdoes Lord Ashcroft's role. Our performance in marginal seats owes much to the early adoption of candidates and we're aware of some dissatisfaction at the service that those candidates receive from CCHQ. Lord Ashcroft's polling operation is unpopular with key aides to Team Cameron. The Conservative Party owes Lord Ashcroft a great deal - not least because of the money he poured into the party in the leanest of lean times, 1997 to 2001, but the Labour Party and Fraser Nelson give him more credit than is deserved.
Fraser's gold medal goes to Gordon Brown. We have no quarrel with that verdict. From the bottled election to the Olympics torch fiasco to the 10p tax con, Mr Brown has indeed been "the Tories' hero".
A poll for The Economist paints Britain as increasingly European and less American in its political and moral beliefs. And, in today's Independent on Sunday, John Rentoul contends that the Tories are only prospering because they are often embracing Labour policies. ConservativeHome's general belief (as set out in our manifesto) is that centre right ideas are prospering across the world but is that true in Britain? Here's our rough guide to which debates the British left and right are currently winning:
While accepting that right and left are not always helpful describers...
What do you think?
Compassionate, progressive conservatism. There are no big ideas that yet sum up David Cameron's compassionate conservatism but there are many hopeful signs (summarised here) and National Citizenship Service is a worthy attempt at a flagship. Paramount is the prominence that the Tory leader has given to Iain Duncan Smith's social justice efforts. IDS has proposed a range of measures (with many more to come) that will tackle the poverty that has defied Labour's heavy-handed remedies. Greg Clark is also working on very interesting ideas on the voluntary sector. The commitment to poverty at home is also beginning to be twinned with more passion for international justice. In the last week alone, David Cameron raised the tragedy of Darfur at PMQs and devoted a significant section of his Gateshead speech to international development. ConservativeHome's Agenda 2008 will be moving on to human rights issues later this week.
Chris Grayling's welfare reforms. In the first survey of Tory grassroots members after he announced a series of welfare reform measures - including compulsory
reassessment of all incapacity benefit claimants and a time limit for
claiming jobseekers' allowance - Chris Grayling's rating jumped in the monthly
assessment of the shadow cabinet. Expect much more
from Mr Grayling - particularly as the CSJ reports.
Polly Toynbee describes Cameron as a butterfly, a daytripper that leaves no footprints after briefly touching on an issue.
A family friend (Giles Andre?) describes his upbringing in a very loving home as decisive to his political outlook. The Bullingdon Club, he says, was only a small part of his university experience. He spent much more time in a local pub, shooting pool, and in a Jamaican restaurant, eating Jerk Chicken.
Michael Howard says that, in the 1990s, he told David Cameron's mother that he might be party leader/ Prime Minister.
Former Blair adviser Tim Allan says that David Cameron constantly complained about thirty years of ingrained liberalism in the Home Office.
Daniel Finkelstein says that David Cameron was more part of a Square Smith set than a Notting Hill set. The Smith Square set was the first Tory generation to come to political maturity during a period of defeat and that has hugely influenced their politics.
Nick Boles notes that David Cameron was slow to come to modernisation but he relates that Mr Cameron likens his conversion to slow cooking - it's a slow process but a better product in the end. Nick Boles says that Samantha Cameron was decisive in explaining the importance of change to her husband, particularly on an issue like Section 28.
Ian Birrell of The Independent says that DC is very reluctant to talk about his severely disabled son, Ivan.
Friend Andy Feldman says that the NHS' care for his son Ivan has made him understand its importance and the general value of the public services. The experience of Ivan has also taught him that politics is only one part of life.
Former Telegraph Editor Martin Newland confirms that David Cameron did tell a 2005 dinner party that he saw himself as the 'heir to Blair'.
Derek Conway (recorded before he lost the whip) says that David Cameron does have a strong streak of ruthlessness.
Danny Finkelstein says that the chocolate orange incident is an important preview of the kind of Prime Minister that David Cameron will be: he will often lead public opinion with announcements [the bully pulpit] not just through legislation.
Tim Montgomerie says that David Cameron is instinctively a small government conservative but is part of a group very burnt by defeats at the last two elections and afraid to advocate smaller government this side of a General Election.
Danny Finkelstein says that David Cameron is fundamentally a pragmatist. It is not always possible to know how he will handle an issue. Norman Lamont says that David Cameron still has growing to do but Douglas Hurd says that he has time on his side but the early signs are impressive.
Tim Montgomerie again says that David Cameron's key asset is his reasonableness - his appeal to Waitrose voters. What he still needs to communicate is that Reagan-Thatcher sense of how he will change the country.
The programme is available to 'listen again' from Radio 4's homepage and Saturday's 'choice of the day' in the right hand column.
Danny spent quite a bit of time knocking down straw men - the voters don't want large, unexplained spending cuts, he said (although noone is advocating them) and we can't refight the last two elections (who is suggesting that we do?) but his comparison with Blair in 1997 was most misleading.
Danny seems stuck in the mid-1990s. We imagine him going home and watching This Life DVDs and listening to Portishead. Like Blair in 1997, he said, we need to offer reassurance, reassurance, reassurance.
There is, of course, a lot of truth to what he said. The reason we chose hares versus tortoises was because the reassurance or caution v boldness debate is real. Although ConservativeHome favours a more hare-like approach we are willing to concede that the wait-and-see strategy has a lot of validity (and, as Danny says, the tortoise did win in Aesop's fable).
Using Blair's 1997 strategy to advocate caution on tax'n'spend and in other key policy areas is questionable, however, for two main reasons:
Voters were willing to accept large increases in the state in 1997. Now they've seen massive increases and for little return. Polling from the TaxPayers' Alliance points to the changed mood on tax and spend.
Labour only had to beat the Tories. Blair was the principal beneficiary of anti-Tory sentiment. The Conservative situation is different today. We can't just rely on Labour failure. We need something a lot more special because we also have to oust a lot of LibDems, overcome an electoral system that is tilted heavily against us and to energise the many voters turned off by the Blair years. Reassurance alone won't tackle those factors. Bolder initiatives like the IHT cut will be required.
Finally: Although Blair reassured on many economic issues there was also a boldness to his overall presentation. Voters saw him representing something radically different from the Thatcher-Major Tories. Social justice was core to the New Labour pitch. Voters don't yet have a clear idea of what the Tories offer. There's still time to develop a bigger narrative and bolder policies but let's discuss what they might be.
PS Iain Dale thinks that ConservativeHome may be setting up a false debate. Iain should talk to his colleagues at The Telegraph. At that newspaper's highest levels there is a strong belief that the Conservative Party should be much bolder. It is a live discussion amongst MPs. I was careful last week to describe the debate as "gentle" and "not personal". This isn't a split but a grown-up discussion about the pace of Project Cameron. The debate is real and Iain of all people should support the grassroots joining in that debate.
Yesterday we noted the hare versus tortoise debate amongst Conservative strategists. Ben Brogan noted it on his blog and Steve Richards asks Ken Clarke about the tension for this weekend's GMTV Sunday Programme. The former Chancellor manages to mangle the debate as being between a hare and a rabbit!
Steve Richards: Can I finally ask you – there’s an interesting debate on conservativehome, one of the websites, I don’t know if you visit it…
Kenneth Clarke: I don’t know it. I’m not a blog man.
Steve Richards: Full of Conservative party members blogging on and some of them raising quite interesting questions about the style of David Cameron, some saying should he move faster, is he being a bit too cautious, others questioning the soundbite approach, arguably, at Prime Minister’s Question Time. I just wonder, as someone who’s been on that Front Bench, in front of that box, albeit not at leader level but at just about every other level, what do you think about the style?
Ken Clarke: I’ve known a journalist trying to describe to me this week as the hare versus rabbit theory…
Steve Richards: That’s the thing going on.
Ken Clarke: I thought that listening to this I was probably a hare, if he got it the right way round. I think what David needs to do… He has the opportunity to be Prime Minister and the public are looking to him as a possible Prime Minister, that’s a huge advance, but they’re not certain yet, and because he’s new, he’s inexperienced, they’re getting to know him, I think he’s capable of doing it myself, what he needs to approach everything with is a statesmanlike attitude of thinking what am I going to do in government. He is doing the work on policy that we did when Margaret was our leader - you’ve really got to know what the devil you’re going to do when you take over, if you take over. It requires a lot of work. But you must only commit yourself to things you’re going to do. You must look and sound like a Prime Minister. A combative one. One who can score points off your opponent. One who can get into the headlines sometimes. But what people want to see is someone who they think’s going to grow into being a Prime Minister in two or three years’ time. Now, insofar as I understand, this bizarre argument about which particular pet you are, I think that makes me a hare rather than a rabbit. Don’t panic, you got two…
In a piece for today's Telegraph Iain Martin urges David Cameron to be bolder. In The Spectator's Politics column Fraser Nelson touches on similar themes - believing that Labour is exhausted and now is the time for the Tories to seize hold of the economic agenda.
'How bold should the Tories be?' is the big question now being asked at the very top of the Cameron project.
The argument is gentle. It doesn't have the intensity of wets versus drys or modernisers versus traditionalists. It's not a personal dispute but it's a serious debate. It's tortoises versus hares.
Leading the cautionaries - or tortoises - is David Cameron himself. The cautionaries believe that Brown is finished. They believe that Northern Rock, in particular, is fast eroding the Prime Minister's reputation for economic competence. They do not want to risk the Tories' strong position in the opinion polls - with the latest ConservativeHome poll of polls giving the party an 8.4% average lead.
The hares - wishing the party to be bold - are hoping to be led by George Osborne. The importance of George Osborne to the Cameron project is difficult to understate. Last summer he took much of the initiative in rebalancing the Conservative project away from the uber-modernisers. He recruited Andy Coulson and won the argument for the inheritance tax cut. At the end of last year he noted the drift in the Boris campaign and took the decisions that have now produced a team around the Mayoral hopeful that might deliver victory in the most important contest this side of the next General Election. Osborne is now said to be "on manoeuvres" again - listening carefully to those who think the Tories need to move up a gear.
The bold camp note that the Tories need a seismic shift in order for the party to form a parliamentary majority but that opinion polls point to a defeat for Labour rather than a much larger shift. They say that the Tories need to give electors some big reasons to vote for them rather than the LibDems. They worry that support for the Conservatives is widening much faster than it is deepening. They worry that the party still lacks a defining theme or two that will energise the people who don't float between the parties but who float between voting and not voting at all.
The cautionaries worry that the 'time-to-be-bold' camp are being impatient. They want to delay any big decision on strategy until after May's election results. The depth of Brown's problems and the extent to which Clegg will have revived the LibDem vote will then be clear. They also fear that the Tories may define themselves premmaturely. They remember the rush to talk of a 'recession made in Downing Street' during the Hague years. They worry that a too downbeat assessment of the British economy may be at odds with the 'sunshine image' that David Cameron has largely championed.
ConservativeHome believes that it's time to be bold. Last November we argued that Britain is in decline again - that Britain doesn't need a change of management but a real change of direction. We've argued that that should start with a promise to slow the growth in public spending. Only yesterday David Cameron emphasised his cautionary credentials by saying that he may well extend the commitment to match Labour's plans (which continue the biggest peacetime increase in the size of the British state). This is such a contrast with France that has just announced a five year freeze on public spending. All of the hard work of the 1980s and 1990s by the Thatcher and Major governments is being undone. Britain as the enterprise capital of Europe is no more. Boldness on economic policy could not be more urgent. If George Osborne really wants to lead the bold camp he should start with his own brief.
The leader begins by noting that the overall Tory position is strong:
"The Conservative Party has registered a lead over Labour in 25 out of 27 opinion polls, with a margin ranging from three points to 13. In all but four of these polls, the Tories scored 40% or more; the most recent survey, by YouGov last Sunday, put them at 43%, 10 points ahead of Labour, enough to command an overall Commons majority of more than 40 seats."
The Telegraph also praises David Cameron for "outwitting" Gordon Brown at yesterday's PMQs - during their clashes over Northern Rock. The mood at last night's parliamentary party dinner was said to be "buoyant" and spirits were certainly helped by "hilarious speeches" from William Hague and Keith Simpson. But complacency, The Telegraph warns, would be "suicidal". The party has been at its best when it has been most radical. The Telegraph highlights George Osborne's inheritance tax cut and also the welfare reforms that stemmed from Iain Duncan Smith's social justice policy group. Here's what The Telegraph thinks the Tories should do next:
Firstly, it urges "dropping the inhibiting commitment to maintaining Labour's spending plans". Three cheers to that! ConservativeHome recommended the very same thing on Monday. Labour has mounted the largest-ever peacetime increase in spending and George Osborne has pledged that it will continue. By moderating annual spending growth from 2% to 1.5% Mr Osborne would have approximately £3bn more each year to devote to lower borrowing or economy-boosting tax relief. At Monday's press conference Mr Cameron defended the spending me-tooism by saying that the spending settlement for the public sector was already tight enough. But the settlement is far tighter for many hard-working families and businesses. Over at CentreRight.com Matthew Elliott noted that "by 2009, each person working in the private sector will be paying more each month into the pension of a civil servant than they will into their own pension". That's an extraordinary statistic. Slower spending growth will give a Conservative Chancellor more freedom to ensure a fairer deal for the private business and private citizen.
Secondly, it calls for boldness in reform of the Whitehall machine. The Telegraph notes that Whitehall is "now failing to meet even the most basic standards of governing competence." Some Tories blame ministers for the incompetence but the problems go deeper. Excessive centralisation and politically correct theories mean that the civil service is not the Rolls Royce operation that Tory ex-ministers remember. We looked at one angle of this challenge last week in our implementation, implementation, implementation post.
Thirdly it calls for more hunger for power: "There remains a nagging perception that many Tories have yet to display it." That perception will persist so long as so many members of the shadow cabinet pursue such extensive outside interests. There is little doubt that David Cameron and George Osborne, in particular, are working flat out for victory. The same cannot be said of every member of the shadow cabinet.
Interviewed by Andrew Marr this morning the Conservative leader said that Peter Hain cannot go on as yesterday - issuing a statement to the press and then scurrying away without answering questions. Mr Cameron said the Hain situation was another example of the Prime Minister dithering.
Other highlights (not verbatim) of David Cameron's interview:
Labour would certainly have lost the General Election if Gordon Brown had called one last autumn - and the Conservatives had every chance of winning it.
The Tory revival in the polls didn't happen after Brown had 'bottled it' but because voters became enthusiastic about the programme we unveiled at our Party Conference.
The Osborne and Hain cases are "completely different". All of the Osborne money was declared to the Electoral Commission and an email from the House of Commons' authorities appeared to suggest that further disclosure was not necessary.
I support a cut in the amount of money that a party can spend at a General Election - that is when political parties can get "carried away". I do not support controls in between elections because we need to make it fair for candidates against MPs who enjoy big allowances.
It's possible that planning for an autumn General Election may have distracted Labour and stopped them from making the decisions that needed to be taken on Northern Rock.
We need a new Bank of England Act to put the Bank in full charge of decisions to deal with financial crises.
We will give the Bank Governor a one eight year, non-renewable term in order to strengthen independence.
We will definitely have a referendum on the EU treaty if it hasn't then been ratified. If it has been ratified we'll look at how to proceed then.
Mr Cameron also appeared to say that he will back Labour on nuclear energy but that the Government needed to do much more on decentralised energy and renewable energy.
At the end of the interview Mr Cameron agreed that parliament needed more MPs with backgrounds in small business and in the voluntary sector.
That seems to be a question on the minds of many commentators at the moment. Peter Riddell noted yesterday that the Tories were still seeking the knockout blow. The topic is also on David Cameron's mind. In a briefing to frontbenchers on Tuesday he said that he was working towards a 45% poll rating for the Conservatives. He noted underlying improvements in the party's position - especially on economic competence. After years of being 20% or more behind on measures of economic trust, the Tories are now level-pegging with Labour or slightly ahead. At the frontbenchers meeting David Cameron joked that when the Tories are well ahead on measures of economic competence, that will be the time that George Osborne challenges him for the leadership. George smiled broadly at this point!
Steve Richards, in today's Independent, thinks it may be policy "fuzziness": "The fuzziness is reflected in some contradictory policy announcements. Cameron calls for schools to be set free and yet is prescriptive about what should be taught, most recently grabbing headlines about the methods required to ensure kids can read by the time they are six. More widely at yesterday's Prime Minister's Question Time, Cameron asked two questions that implied support for rises in public spending on defence and prison-building yet his overall policy is to spend the proceeds of growth on tax cuts as well as expenditure."
Janet Daley, Telegraph, worried that Cameron's devastation of Brown at PMQs (watch this as an example) may be endangering Cameron's nice guy image:
"Mr Cameron has traded heavily - and successfully - on being a nice guy.
Looking like the sadist of the lower sixth egging on a baying gang of
henchmen is not consistent with his engaging New Conservative image and
particularly not with the year and a half that was devoted to a
Not-The-Nasty-Party-Any-More public relations campaign."
Fraser Nelson has warned the Tories to be on the alert at charges of elitism: "When Cameron first threw his hat into the ring as leader, many Tories
asked aloud if an Etonian could really be party leader. Not from a
sense of inverted snobbery, but because they feared the left would
caricature the Tories as being of the rich for the rich. The Daily
Mirror has indeed done this remorselessly, hunting for stories that
play to this theme. And on Monday, they found one."
My own opinion... Things are going well for the Conservatives but there's been too much tactics and too little strategy of late. This should be a time for deepening the Conservative agenda and for anticipating the 'Clegg effect'. Have we, for example, been studying the Orange Book? That book may provide many clues to the likely new LibDem leader's approach and we should be preparing attack lines and plundering it for the best ideas.
Instead we've been playing too much politics. Tuesday's decision by our party to debate party funding was a mistake and not just because Quentin Letts was horrified by the spectacle of MPs throwing mud at each other - although that was predictable. Voters are more interested in competence. Unfortunately they think most politicians are sleazy but they hope, as Libby Purves has argued, that they're capable of "keep[ing] the trains (and
the taxmen) on the rails."
We should be allowing the Daily Mail and Guido Fawkes etc to take the lead in exposing Labour sleaze; we should be getting on with presenting the positive Conservative alternative. Before the Brown takeover, David Cameron wasted too many PMQs on the Brown-Blair rivalry. It was, as the Americans say, all inside-the-Beltway stuff. Those PMQs - and PMQs now - should nearly always be used to reinforce David Cameron's image as a statesman with a broad interest in the challenges facing Britain.
There's no need for worry but no Conservative should underestimate the task still ahead.
Sometimes it takes someone slightly distant from the day-to-day detail of a political situation to best understand the big picture. Reihan Salam, who I enjoy dinner with on every one of my regular Washington visits, has provided such a bird's eye view of David Cameron's Conservative Party for this week's Weekly Standard. Reihan's excellent piece won't offer very much new for the regular readers of ConservativeHome but it'll be useful to the many Americans who, because of Brown's collapse and this week's impending Bush-Cameron meeting, may want to know a little more about the Conservative leader and the new favourite to be Britain's next Prime Minister. Here are Reihan's concluding words:
"The so-called "Cameroonians" are in a sense the true heirs to the American neoconservatives of the 1970s. They are sensitive to the role culture plays in perpetuating poverty. They are cautious about the power of the state and yet not allergic to using the state to meliorist ends. Perhaps most important, they enthusiastically embrace modern Britain and not Britain as it was in 1950."
David Cameron a neocon? 1970s version or not - that won't please him!
A week ago I spoke to North Shropshire Conservatives as the guest of Owen Paterson MP. It was my first attempt at a big picture overview of the political scene since Brown bottled out of an autumn election. The post below is a development and update of what I said. I'd be grateful for reactions...
There is good news and bad news. The good news is political. The bad news concerns everything else.
At the same time the Tory team is firing on all cylinders. Announcements are coming thick and fast. There's energy. There's 'And theory' balance. There's passion from David Cameron. The Tory team is getting stronger. Osborne on inheritance tax. Davis against Smith on 56 days. Gove on many fronts. There's enthusiasm again amongst the grassroots.
But if that's the good news for the Conservatives, the bad news is that Britain is in a bad way. I believe there has been a massive underestimation of the extent to which Britain is in danger of becoming a declining nation once more. The extent of this decline hasn't yet registered in the polls but the scale of emigration (and the desire to emigrate) is a warning of underlying national disquiet. It's arguably not as serious as 1979 but it's real. An excellent paper by Policy Exchange on Britain's economic performance - More mirage than miracle - set me down this path.
Later today David Cameron will mark the day on which Gordon Brown had planned to hold a General Election with a big picture speech. There's nothing dramatically new in it - just a skillful bringing together of key themes including the idea that we are seeing a change in the tide of ideas every bit as significant as 1979 and 1997. You can read a PDF of the whole speech here. The most important passage is, I think, the one targeting Labour's incompetence:
"After ten years in power, it seems they still haven’t mastered that fairly basic requirement of government – running the country competently. The shambles over immigration. The fiasco over prisoner releases. The first run on a bank for over a hundred years. U turns every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This latest shambles over immigration shows exactly why we need a new government. It’s not just because Gordon Brown has no vision for the future. It’s because this government is incompetent. They try to run everything but they can’t actually run anything. Their whole philosophy is about top-down control, but on this vital issue of migration, they’ve lost control. No wonder people are saying it’s time for change."
A reputation for incompetence is, I think, much more politically deadly than a reputation for sleaze. Most voters don't
have much faith in politicians' ethics but they hope for basic
competence. If we can destroy Labour's reputation for competence - and we have more and more ammunition - we have a good chance of finally ending the Brown-Blair years.
"For the first time in my adult life I heard a party leader clearly attempting to deracialise the issue of immigration and to treat it like any other question of political and economic management... And given that Mr Cameron is speaking against a background in which his party's policy inheritance is defined by Howard, Hague, Thatcher and Powell, this seems to me like a turning point in our national debate about immigration – one that will make it possible for us to speak openly and sensibly about the subject, which most of the country sees as the single-most important in politics."
Mr Cameron was on Radio 4's Today programme this morning to talk further about his immigration policy. He attacked the Prime Minister's "British jobs for British workers" slogan - noting that it was illegal. He described Labour as "completely incompetent". They try and control everything but end up controlling nothing, he concluded.
The Today programme had previewed the interview by caricaturing the immigration debate over the last forty years as the Tories roughly against more immigration and Labour as broadly in favour. David Cameron said that this was a false description of the reality. Over forty years, he said, both parties had been in favour of "controlled immigration" but Labour had either abandoned or failed to enforce historic controls.
The Conservative leader said that "we would benefit if actually we had slightly lower levels of net immigration" but appeared to rule out attaching a number to the promise of a cap on non-EU immigration until the party is in government. Mr Cameron said that he would not want to set a number until he possessed all of the facts - facts that would be gained after talking to local government, business leaders and those running our public services.
Editor's comment: "Every day David Cameron is growing in standing. He handled this morning's interview well. He is able to talk about issues like immigration in ways that were impossible for Michael Howard. The praise from Trevor Phillips is very valuable. After nearly two years of silence on bread and butter issues the party is talking again about the issues that matter to the British people and is doing so with previously elusive sensitivity. Will this new breadth from the perfectly-pitched David Cameron be enough? It might be. This week's immigration stats blunder is just the latest example of Labour's extraordinary incompetence. Labour's decline and possible LibDem infighting (of which more later) may be enough to win us the next election but we shouldn't presume so. I'm genuinely wondering whether more policy boldness will help get us a parliamentary majority or will frighten folk. I hope Lord Ashcroft's money is investigating that question. What I do think - and there's plenty of time to put this right if necessary - is most of our current policies are inadequate to the challenges Britain faces. This concern was expressed by Melanie Phillips on Tuesday although, also from within the Spectator family, Fraser Nelson appears to believe that the Tories are on the road to genuine radicalism. I'm open to being convinced but am not yet converted. The Tories are promising to match Labour on spending which may make significant (and economically urgent) reductions in tax and borrowing very hard to deliver. Our health reform policies are very timid although education policies are looking better and better. It is not clear that, outside of things being more competently managed, how much of a bankable difference on immigration would be possible. Will Conservatives really repatriate powers from Europe? Will we renew our armed forces? I repeat: Over time the Cameron leadership may offer convincing responses to Britain's challenges but I don't think they have done enough yet."
(1) Conservatives won last night's Cambridge Union debate on 'This House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government' for only the second time since 1997 and for, I think, the first time in seven years. Last year the motion failed by 50 votes but last night it was carried by about 200 votes. Congratulations to the proposers - IDS, Nick Herbert and Lord Onslow. Most delicious of all is the news that Quentin Davies led the opposition to the motion.
(2) The Tories won a seat from Labour yesterday on Harlow Council. It's the first time we've ever taken the seat and an encouragement for Robert Halfon, our candidate there. The Tories are now the largest group on the Council - a Council run jointly by a Lib-Lab pact. Congratulations to David Carter, Harlow's newest Tory councillor. Also last night the Manor ward of Sefton Central became 100% blue. The Merseyside constituency is now a Labour-free zone. Something to worry Claire Curtis-Thomas in her battle with the formidable Debi Jones.
(3) I don't know if you saw it but Fraser Nelson was brilliant on Question Time last night. It was his first QT and he writes about it here. I'd be nervous enough doing it for the first time but up against George Galloway, too? No thanks! Fraser writes brilliantly for both the News of the World and The Spectator. Two very different publications but he has developed skills via both platforms that enable him to communicate to a diverse and very large audience. Fraser is just one of a growing number of young people on the centre right who should give us all real hope for the future. The centre right has a growing number of intelligent and compassionate people who will serve great causes in the years ahead. I think of Fraser, of course. Ben Rogers. Neil O'Brien. Matthew Elliott. Douglas Murray. James Forsyth. Allister Heath. Victoria Kluk. Peter Cuthbertson. Shane Greer. And, of course, ConservativeHome's own Sam Coates.
PS There'll be full newslinks over the weekend and two sizzling Platforms but comments moderation might be a bit slow. Sam is on a TA weekend and I'm off to Germany to speak to a FDP Conference about the internet and politics. Auf Wiedersehen!
David Cameron gave a press conference earlier today and promised to hold them regularly from now on. He suggested about once a month.
He began by joking that we should be just nine days from polling day. We should be walking the streets of Bury or Bolton or, if things were going particularly well, Wigan! He was in relaxed mode. Certainly confident.
His opening remarks had three main themes:
Policy development. The road to the manifesto would now be rolled out in three chapters:
Next month there will be a statement on the Opportunity agenda - with a big focus on schools reform.
In January the focus will be on the Responsibility agenda - with fresh ideas on welfare reform.
In February the emphasis will be on Security - with a focus on prisons reform.
No doubt, Mr Cameron joked, the Government will attempt to steal Conservative ideas on these subjects, too.
The six main policy groups were now wound up but the social justice work would continue to be pursued by Iain Duncan Smith's team, the party's green commitments would be exemplified by a forthcoming paper on decentralised energy, on localism the party would be bringing forward new ideas on how councils will be held accountability for their spending and Ken Clarke would be saying more about the West Lothian question.
Party funding. Repeating the message of the weekend Mr Cameron said that caps on donations to political parties must be across the board - including trade unions. Additionally he promised that the Conservatives want to scrap the new Communications Allowance available to MPs. Meeting world leaders. Mr Cameron said that he would be meeting the Prime Ministers of Turkey and Israel later today. He would be in Berlin on Friday to address a CDU/CSU Conference on global issues - a conference also to be addressed by Chancellor Merkel. Next month (I think he said next month) he would be journeying to Prague for a conference with the Czech ruling party - the ODS.
A few opinion polls are due in the next few days and they'll give us a clue as to whether the Conservatives have done enough to "stave off the election" - in the words of this morning's Telegraph. What the headlines won't tellus is the position in the marginals. According to The Independent, Labour polling suggests that the situation in target seats is "patchy and extremely tight".
Yesterday I noted the Conservative formula for 'victory'. It's summarised in the graphic on the right. I've added another plus factor this morning - 'some Tory-friendly newspapers'.
Looking at today's Sun and Mail there appears a real willingness to give the Tories a chance. 'At last voters have a genuine choice' is the headline on the main Mail leader. The Sun says 'Job done' after it had begun the week wondering if the Conservatives were capable of getting back into the game.
I still do not believe that we can win an autumn election if winning means that David Cameron enters 10 Downing Street with a working majority (although I'd love to be proved wrong!). I do believe that it's possible that Gordon Brown can be deprived of his majority and that would be humiliating for the Prime Minister.
Gordon Brown is weakened if he achieves any result less than the 66 majority achieved by Tony Blair in 2005. That thought will prey on him heavily as he makes his election decision.
Professor John Curtice in The Independent identifies a number of factors that could make it hard for Brown to claim he 'wins' an autumn poll:
After boundary changes Labour's majority is down to 48 - so he needs to win seats in order to match Blair's 2005 majority.
Opinion polls have overstated Labour's lead in previous elections
although their 2005 prediction of a 5% lead was only slightly greater
than Labour's actual 3% lead.
The LibDems and Tories who beat Labour in 2005 have been working
their seats hard and they won't necessarily be vulnerable to simple,
uniform swings. They'll have their own incumbency boost and they'll
often not be facing a Labour opponent who has used their MP status to
Lots of good policies are now tumbling out of the Tory cupboard and that's hugely to be welcomed. I plan to make a list of my favourite ten doorstep pledges by the end of the week.
I think the Conference still lacks a big theme, however. I'm not convinced that 'It's time for change' quite works. The video we highlighted yesterday may come closest to what we need. It suggested that Labour is yesterday's party. The Conservatives, in contrast, are the party that understands tomorrow's challenges: globalisation, social breakdown, security, the environment.
Labour's big theme is Gordon Brown. He will present himself as strong and serious. David Cameron's speech tomorrow must provide our party with its big theme. He needs to convey the idea that 'Britain can be so much better'. I expect optimism, hope, tomorrow and change to be words that appear throughout the leader's big speech. David Cameron will struggle to appear stronger than Gordon Brown. He may be able to show that he's much more in tune with our times. I'm glad I'm not writing the speech!
The party is ready for a General Election: Refusing to discuss the "fluctuating" opinion polls Mr Cameron said that the Conservative Party was ready to go to the country whenever Gordon Brown made the decision.
Lots of policy review ideas will be junked this week: The policy reviews were excellent but this week lots of ideas will be junked - there will be no higher taxation of alcohol, no charges on supermarket parking, no VAT on domestic flights, no penalty for a second overseas holiday flight.
Green taxes will pay for cuts in family taxation: Green taxation as a proportion of total tax take must go up. Mr Cameron reiterated that any increase in green taxation will, however, go into an independently-audited family fund which will pay for reductions in the taxation of ordinary families. The party is committed to eliminate the couple penalty in the benefits system.
Recognising marriage: Every other European country recognises marriage in the tax system. The next Conservative Government will do so, too. It will send a signal that marriage is important.
No unfunded, upfront tax cuts: Every tax relief announced this week - including stamp duty relief for first-time buyers - will be fully-funded. There will be no unfunded, up-front tax cut promises.
We're not lurching right: The first policy announcement was on the NHS and the GPs' contract and the second announcement on the couples' penalty within the benefits system will help 1.8 million of the poorest people in Britain.
There'll be three big themes here in Blackpool: (1) Conservatives will give people more power over their lives - (2) We'll never solve social problems until we make society and families stronger - (3) We'll make Britain safer and greener.
The choice at the next General Election... will be whether to continue with Labour's failed record on the NHS, higher taxes and doubled gun crime or to vote for real change with the Conservatives... "I really want this election."
On Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street visit: It was lovely to see her outside of Number Ten again. It's not true that I haven't been photographed with Lady Thatcher. I was photographed with her at the unveiling of her Commons statue.
Immigration: We will control immigration - we will introduce firm measures - but we will always address the issue in calm, measured language.
Last night's by-election results may produce further ammunition to those Labour 'greybeards' who are urging Gordon Brown to be cautious about an autumn General Election. We listed other risk factors on Monday.
On the basis of yesterday's results the Conservatives would have a 6.2% lead over Labour - a very different picture to the national opinion polls which actually suggest a 5.8% Labour lead (according to ConservativeHome's Poll of Polls).
The Conservatives won a seat from Labour on Sunderland council with a 3.7% swing. In a Kent County Council by-election there was a 5.5% swing to the Conservatives although Labour held a seat on Dover District Council.
Perhaps the most encouraging result came in Cheshire. A 6.5% swing from Labour to the Conservatives ensured that Eleanor Johnson was elected and that the County remains in Tory control. The Gowy seat includes three important polling districts in the target Tory seat of Chester; Christleton, Littleton and Guilden Sutton.
An interview with George Osborne indicates that the party will ditch large parts of the Gummer-Goldsmith report. There'll be no charges for supermarket parking. No taxes on a second short annual flight. There may even be a promise to reform inheritance tax.
I'm also expecting stronger statements on immigration. Shadow Immigration Damian Green was on the Today programme this morning and the front page of The Mail shouts: Two million more migrants in just a decade. Mr Green is quoted in that story saying: "This rips apart the Government's previous complacent assumptions about net immigration." I hope we'll also see Tory reluctance to talk about immigration ripped up in Blackpool, too.
A ConservativeHome poll of Tory members - due to be published tomorrow - will spell out what the grassroots would like the leadership to do next.
11am: Caroline Spelman comments: "“This set of results is very encouraging and shows that throughout the country more and more people are turning away from Labour and towards the Conservatives. Labour should be very worried that in a week when Gordon Brown has dominated the news, the Conservatives have made a crucial gain from Labour in the North and achieved a swing in three marginal seats which would mean three strong Conservative gains in a general election. After a week in which Labour hasn’t been out of the news there have been swings to the Conservatives from North to South. People want change and they want to fix our broken society. After ten years of Labour it is clear that Gordon Brown cannot be the change the country needs.”
Interviewed by Fraser Nelson for this week's Spectator (not yet online), the Shadow Chancellor distances himself from what he calls the über-modernisers and embraces 'the politics of and':
"I don’t take the kind of über-modernising view that some have had, that you can’t talk about crime or immigration or lower taxes. It is just that you can’t do so to the exclusion of the NHS, the environment and economic stability. I have always argued for a more balanced message, and that is what I hope you would see at this party conference."
The Daily Mail's Ben Brogan reads this statement as an attempt by George Osborne to distance himself from the modernisers in the Cameron camp and questions the helpfulness of his remarks.
Mr Osborne also uses the interview to talk about immigration - agreeing with David Cameron's recent statement that it is too high:
"I don’t think we were ready for the impact on public services of a very large number of people coming to this country. Immigration from eastern Europe was 100 times, well maybe 50 times greater than the government predicted it was going to be. So there was a complete failure to anticipate the impact on our public services or indeed the impact on our economy.’ Immigration has been a ‘broad benefit’, he says. ‘But it has put an enormous pressure on some of our low-skilled British citizens who have found themselves in some parts of Britain priced out of the job market. I don’t think we have done enough as a country to give these people the right education or skills. It is no good Gordon Brown saying, “British jobs for British workers”, when he has singly failed to prepare British workers for the ten year he’s been chancellor."
2.45pm: A source close to Mr Osborne tells me that George is not in any way distancing himself from Team Cameron and points to David Cameron's 7th September speech
in which the Conservative leader said: "Forget about those on the left
who say I shouldn’t talk about Europe, crime or lower taxes... or those
on the right who say I shouldn’t talk about the NHS, the environment or
well-being. That is a false choice and I will not make it... And to
those who think, even in 21st century Britain that commitment and
responsibility cannot be embraced by all, I say: you will not find a
stronger supporter of marriage but why not also recognise the
commitment that gay couples make to each other in civil partnerships?
That’s modern Conservatism."
3.15pm: "The first sign of a possible rift between David Cameron and George Osborne emerged today. In an interview, the shadow chancellor appeared to distance himself from his party leader and friend. Mr Osborne sought to contrast his own political views with what he called "uber-modernisers" - seen as a reference to Mr Cameron and his image guru Steve Hilton... The modernisers around Mr Cameron include Mr Hilton and Nicholas Boles, the former head of the Policy Exchange think tank. The Spectator identified what it called a rival group of "balancers". Tory MPs say this group would include Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, and Andy Coulson, director of communications." - Evening Standard
At last night's Carlton Political Dinner over £250,000 was raised for target seats. Tory donors mixed with shadow cabinet ministers and listened to remarks from Simon Woolfson, David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
Speaking confidently, without notes, David Cameron attempted to answer four big questions. My summaries of his answers to his own questions are not verbatim.
Why are we behind in the polls? New Prime Ministers always get a boost. It happened with John Major. But the boost won't last because the facts of politics haven't changed. NHS A&E wards are still under threat. Gun crime has still doubled. Taxes have still soared. Disposable incomes are still under pressure. Five million are not in work. 600,000 more people are in extreme poverty. And Labour aren't competent: We've had the first run on a bank for 100 years and the Foot and Mouth outbreak originated from a government lab.
How are we going to knit our policies together? Until recently people didn't think we had enough policies. Now most critics seem to think we have too many! The policy review process was good. People from outside politics helped us rethink key issues but it's now a time for choosing and in Blackpool next week the key policy priorities of the party will be clear.
What are the party's clear and simple messages? Conservatives want to give people more control over their lives. We want to encourage a new generation of homeowners. We want headteachers to have more control over their schools. We want real choice for patients. Tax is too high and so we will share the proceeds of growth. We will mend Britain's broken society. In the 1970s the problem was irresponsible unions - today it's irresponsible parents. Then it was inflation. Now it's crime. The overall aim is a safer, greener country. Conservatives will tax pollution - not families. Opportunity, Responsibility and Family are the new Conservative watchwords.
Are we ready for a General Election? If Gordon Brown calls it - Yes. We have a £10m fighting fund. We have nearly all candidates selected. Two million newspapers were distributed in target seats last weekend. The choice for Britain is more of the same with Gordon Brown or real change with the Conservatives.
It was a very solid, reasonable performance from a very trim looking Mr Cameron. Ahead of his Blackpool speech I'd advice focus on three As, however:
Anger: I'd like to see David Cameron get a little angry about what Labour has done to Britain. He shouldn't get personal with Brown - no way - but voters should know that David Cameron has passion.
Attachment: There weren't any stories last night to bring the message alive. David Cameron needs to know that he is connected with the problems of Britain and with the people who are experiencing those problems.
Authenticity: The most important of all and related to the other two. David Cameron must make it clear that his leadership isn't a political exercise but a personal mission. By demonstrating a little anger and a lot of attachment he will demonstrate his authenticity.
11.30am: Nadine Dorries MP reports for the Cornerstone blog on David Cameron's pep talk to MPs.