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Nick Wood: Is Cameron a lucky general?

Napoleon favoured lucky generals. On that basis, David Cameron should be made a Field Marshal. Last week, as the press made hay with the policy report on the environment, conjuring up lurid headlines about higher taxes on flights, driving and shopping, Cameron looked on the back foot.

Then Gordon Brown's big tent flapped open to embrace Margaret Thatcher - reinforcing the impression that PM-For-Life Brown is truly the father of the nation.

Cameron's people said the Leader was "relaxed", which in my experience equates to something mid-way between furious and incandescent.

But then came Northern Rock. Thousands queued outside branches in a panicky bid to get their money out. And millions more wondered if the casino economy - founded on more than £1 trillion of debt - was about to come crashing down.

The story was broken on BBC News by Robert Peston, the business editor and a former political editor of the Financial Times. Unusually for the Beeb, Peston knows what a story is and has the guts to pursue it all the way to transmission.

It was a brilliant story and the rest of the media has piled in, amplifying the sense of impending financial collapse. For a nation that lives on credit, a banking meltdown is the stuff of the worst nightmares. So the weekend opinion polls, reported in The Sunday Times, Independent and News of the World are already out of date. Last weekend, it was possible still to imagine Gordon Brown going for an autumn election. That looks a far less likely prospect today.

Under the tutellage of Andy Coulson, Cameron's communications supremo and former News of the World editor, the Conservatives are both responding faster and more sharply. Cameron turned the screw on Brown (remember no return to Tory boom and bust) blaming the Northern Rock debacle on a decade's loose management of the economy. Public and private borrowing has created dangerously unstable conditions.

The media lapped it up, enjoying as it always does, the spectacle of the great and mighty confounded. In an eerie parallel of Black Wednesday almost exactly 15 years ago, which destroyed the Conservatives' reputation for sound economic management, Northern Rock might yet be engraved on Gordon Brown's heart. Many people - and one has to presume many within Downing Street - thought that Brown was virtually assured victory if he called an October election.

Now that looks most unlikely, though not yet impossible if the markets and well-heeled savers calm down. So Gordon will probably have to turn to Plan B, putting himself further at the mercy of events and risking the longer term threats to his bubble economy.

May be next May, may be a year or two later. Cameron may well have been spared a bruising election defeat. Now he can plan for a conference and winter in which he can pull together his vision of Britain and take the fight to Brown with renewed vigour and confidence First he was lucky to face Blair in his twilight years. Now we discover that Gordon might well have feet of clay.


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