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Nick Wood: Operation Don't Panic


Former Times journalist Nick Wood was a media adviser to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. He now runs Media Intelligence Partners.  Nick begins his new weekly look at the media's coverage of the week's political events.

Tony Blair dubbed Gordon Brown the Great Clunking Fist, but this week the old bruiser has been boxing clever.

Faced with a mini-revival in Tory fortunes sparked by David Cameron’s rediscovery of some favourite old tunes, or blasts from the past as they are sometimes known, Brown has avoided direct engagement with the enemy.

Instead of the left hook, we have had the left jab as Brown has sought to keep Cameron off balance. The recruitment of John Bercow, Patrick Mercer and Johan Eliasch to the Brown corner took the gloss off Cameron’s attempts to define himself and his party – specifically through new education policies and a slimmed down version of national service.

Although The Daily Mail and The Sun in particular backed the national service idea, most of  the media were happier to play hunt the defector. The BBC, especially, treated the transfer of the little-known Eliasch as if Sir Alex Ferguson had signed half the Chelsea squad.

Presumably, the Beeb were much impressed with Eliasch’s verdict that Cameron had lurched to the Right – the ultimate thought crime down at TV Centre where dressing to the Left is de rigeur.

It was left to Simon Heffer, the Telegraph’s formidable lurcher to point out that the Conservatives’ mini-recovery might just be connected to Cameron’s robust remarks about crime and immigration. “Operation Don’t Panic” was how Andy Grice described it in the Independent on Sunday. In Hefferland, Cameron will have to panic plenty more to get the ship back on course.

Michael Ancram’s intervention in last Tuesday’s Telegraph also raised the political temperature by suggesting that Cameron was ashamed of his party’s (recent) Thatcherite past. Poor timing was the verdict of this site and the Mail, which was presumably a polite way of saying that Ancram was right but should not have said it now. Leaving aside when might be a good moment for the Marquis of Lothian to reflect on the state of a party he has served for more than 30 years, there was little comfort for Cameron in the right-wing media’s coverage of  the grandee’s pamphlet.

But much of this will have gone unnoticed by a public still coming to terms with the end of the summer while goggling at the lurid speculation about the disappearance of poor Madelaine McCann.

Two clouds loom immediately on the Tory horizon this week. Judging by the weekend coverage, Hurricane Gummer looks set narrowly to miss Cameron’s Notting Hill wind turbine and blow itself out on the comment pages of The Guardian. But until the full horror of the Quality of Life report is published on Thursday, no one can be sure. 

Personally, I would be quite happy for Cameron to close down every airport in Britain and insist that everyone travel by boat, train and liner. But I fear that on this issue, at least, I am out of step with the rest of the country, who would cheerfully murder anyone who tried to interfere with their package holiday in Marbella.

The other cloud is the opinion polls. If they confirm the narrowing of the gap, election fever will start to subside and Operation Don’t Panic will be declared a triumph. And then, of course, Mr Ancram will be free to speak his mind.


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