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Nick Wood: Hats off to David Cameron

Woodnick Former Times journalist Nick Wood was a media adviser to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. He now runs Media Intelligence Partners.

Hats off to David Cameron and his team. By denying Gordon Brown his preferred option of an early election, the Conservatives have scored a stunning political coup and opened up the genuine prospect of victory when polling day eventually comes.

The scale of the damage done to Brown is almost incalculable. The aura of impregnability that has surrounded the Prime Minister since taking over the reins in the summer has been shattered. His reputation for seriousness and straight-talking has suffered a dreadful blow. The weekend before the Tory conference he dominated the political landscape. By last weekend he looked shallow, fragile and fallible. No longer the master strategist, he has committed a series of blunders of quite breathtaking naivete.

Meanwhile, Cameron has won his spurs. Against the background of opinion polls pointing to a Labour landslide, in a week he transformed the political weather, forcing Brown to back down at the eleventh hour. Forget all this Labour guff about the PM wanting to set out his vision. The PM wanted to crush the Conservative Party. He failed and he failed in the most spectacular and humiliating way.

Andy Coulson and the Tory publicity machine should take a bow. Last week at Blackpool was like watching Shane Warne bowling on a beach as ball after ball bamboozled the Labour string-pullers. The media lapped it up, producing the best set of Tory headlines for 20 years.

First William Hague ridiculed Brown’s pretensions to be the change; then George Osborne fired the magic bullet of the inheritance tax cut, delighting middle class voters in the marginals; then Liam Fox wrecked the Iraq stunt and David Davis talked tough on crime and immigration. IDS showed the Tories have a heart. Finally, Cameron, like a good conductor, pulled his orchestra together. His challenge to Brown to hold an election was a master-stroke, raising the stakes of a Labour retreat to monumental levels.

Cameron gambled on a weak hand and held his nerve. Brown, sitting on a much better cards, folded – literally. Cameron showed leadership – Brown showed weakness. It was a staggering rewrite of the script for the last four months and just about every political commentator in town got the point.

Brown should have gone for the election, after first instructing Alistair Darling to defuse the Osborne IHT landmine. He would have won – comfortably. But it is hard now to see him winning again.

The old adage has it that there is more to learn from failure than success. But Cameron must resist the natural temptation to bask in the gratitude of his party. He has to understand exactly how he pulled off this coup and – even more importantly – how he can harry Brown to the end, destroying what’s left of his shredded reputation for leadership.

No longer must Brown be allowed to boast that his government is some way different and better than the Blair regime. Cameron and co have to bash home the message that the only change on offer is a Tory one. Brown has to be hammered over his broken promise on the European referendum. Gathering economic problems, industrial unrest and the public spending squeeze to be unveiled tomorrow must all be harnessed to reinforce the impression of a fragile Labour government that has frankly run out of ideas and energy.

But Cameron will also have to go positive. It should not escape his notice that it took a tax cut (albeit one you have to die for) to change the political weather. He should reopen the tax and spending debate, give Hague free rein on Europe and encourage Davis to go even further on gang crime and immigration. Meanwhile, he should let IDS cover his left flank with a roll-out of the Breakthrough Britain proposals across the UK.

Cameron has proved (to himself as much as anyone) that he can be bold and brave. He just needs to take confidence from his trouncing of Labour’s supposed political grandmaster and turn up the heat – negative and positive.

The media will go with him. Essentially Conservative newspapers (The Mail, Sun, Telegraph, Times and Express) revelled in last week’s policy mix and the defenestration of Mr Brown. A new chapter has been written in the great Westminster soap opera – after the rise of Gordon, the fall of Gordon. Even the broadcasters are ready to play ball.

As for Brown, after a week of high drama, he should remember these lines from Julius Caesar.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
  Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
  Omitted, all the voyage of their life
  Is bound in shallows and in miseries.


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