Britain in 2008: A cool Yule for Cameron

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One of the things that can best describe the fortunes of any political party is the mood of, well, its parties. The Christmas festivities hosted by David Cameron’s Conservatives were buzzing. The Tories look excited. The contrast with the grim demeanour of Gordon Brown’s government was palpable. Ministers could scarcely conceal their exhaustion as they dispensed the mulled wine.

When the now departed Tony Blair was vying for power in the 1990s, New Labour’s embrace of modernity was mirrored by the crowds it attracted. Out went cloth caps and union banners; in came sharply dressed young supporters, more obviously comfortable in the English home counties than in the smoke-filled rooms of Old Labour’s past. The Cool Britannia epithet may have been hyperbolic but it carried a powerful message: New Labour was the future; Conservatives the past.

Mr Cameron has not changed his party’s name. But in their metropolitan manifestation at least, the Tories have a younger, cooler look. A pre-Christmas party hosted by one of the Tory think-tanks was packed with 20- and 30-somethings. Not a blue rinse nor a tweed jacket in sight. This was New Labour circa 1995.

Mr Cameron still has some catching up to do. By the mid-1990s, the political die had been cast. The country had made up its mind that it had had enough of the Tories. It is not quite as sure now that it wants to rid itself of New Labour. The pace of the turnaround in the fortunes of the two main parties since the autumn suggests voters have yet to take a settled view. If Mr Brown can fall, and Mr Cameron rise, as fast as during the past few months, logic says the positions could still reverse themselves.

Yet Mr Cameron starts 2008 with the political wind behind him. Three months ago, the general election was the prime minister’s to lose. Mr Brown’s clumsy hesitation about whether to seek an immediate mandate handed the initiative to his adversary. Mr Blair’s old anthem is now Mr Cameron’s. There is not much original about “time for a change”. Its appeal is no less potent for that.

Mr Brown has not been dealt the easiest of hands since his now-forgotten summer honeymoon. The misfortunes of Northern Rock and the global credit squeeze could not easily have been anticipated. Labour’s breaches of party funding rules pre-dated his premiership. Who could have guessed a junior civil servant would unwittingly lose the credit records of millions of British citizens?

There has been more to the malaise, though, than the impact of what Harold Macmillan famously called “events”. Strange though it is to say after all those years of waiting, Mr Brown has seemed unprepared for the premiership. He has been surprised by the demands of the job. He says he wants time and space to develop his arguments.

Modern prime ministers have neither.

Working habits shaped during a decade at the Treasury – of painfully slow deliberation leading to immoveable obstinacy – are unsuited to the demands of No 10. The premiership demands suppleness: quick decisions and when necessary, equally quick tactical retreats.

Mr Brown has been adept at neither. He has produced plenty of policies, but has yet to map out a clear strategic direction. Cabinet colleagues still wonder whether he will be led by his heart and govern as a social democrat, or whether he will ultimately follow his head and embrace the centrism of his predecessor.

The blunder of the autumn election that never was spoke both to a habit of relying on a small coterie of inexperienced advisers and to a dangerous indecisiveness.

Things will get tougher in 2008. Mr Brown cannot fairly be blamed for a slowing global economy. But nor can he expect the voters to applaud him for weak house prices and uncertain employment prospects. After the spending splurge of the past few years, the government has run out of money to ease the pain. There are no extra billions for schools and hospitals.

That gives Mr Cameron the chance to make the weather. The Tory leader has defied the hubristic predictions of Mr Brown’s young acolytes that he would be exposed as all style and no substance. Mr Cameron studied Mr Blair’s political rise, and studied it well.

His repeated incursions onto centrist ground come straight from the New Labour playbook. His green, socially aware Conservatism is all about occupying as much as possible of the available political space. Emboldened by favourable opinion polls he is unafraid of the inevitable inconsistencies and oxymorons. When last did a Conservative leader call himself a progressive?

To say that the opportunity lies with Mr Cameron is not to say, though, that his party will seize it. The hit-and-run tactics of the past few months have concealed the weaknesses in the Tory leader’s position. Most obviously, many in his own party are much less convinced about the virtues of cuddly Conservatism. Move beyond Mr Cameron’s circle and there are plenty of Tory MPs who still prefer to worship at the altar of Thatcherism. They will back the leader only for as long as he is ahead in the polls.

There lies part of the explanation for the ambiguities and flimsiness of the party’s programme. Clever tactical ploys – promises to cut inheritance tax and raise the money from rich non-residents – do not amount to a programme for government. For the present, the media is content to give Mr Cameron the benefit of the doubt. That moment will pass, especially if the equally youthful Nick Clegg, now leading the Liberal Democrats, restores their fortunes at Tory expense.

The election will be later rather than sooner. Mr Brown can wait, if he needs to, until mid-2010. Whatever the date, the outcome of the contest seems certain to be shaped by a debate about change. Can Mr Brown change the way he governs; can Mr Cameron change his party’s instincts?

philip.stephens@ft.com

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