The Tories' favourite boy

The holiday mood at Conservative HQ is boosted by James Purnell's welfare plans

On the day before recess, it's pretty much business as usual at Conservative campaign headquarters, where the talk is that the summer holds no late starts or long, boozy lunches on the Commons terrace. The press team is still putting out stories and there is a rota of MPs organised for rapid response should Gordon put his foot or mouth in it while in Southwold.

The staff were rewarded for an outstanding year with an end-of-term barbecue at Kensington Roof Gardens, surrounded by tropical plants and flamingos. It was all very High School Musical 2, with exotic wildlife (some more exotic than others) a hundred feet above Kensington High Street.

Back in the office, Tories have been checking out James Purnell, the new young buck many suggest could be the saviour of Brown's crumbling party. The Central Office staff don't get it. Says one Tory aide: "He's a boy. I'm not convinced his own party buy him. Surely this is a case of hype from a desperate left, bandying about names of possible successors?"

There are apparently those in the government who are hoping that Purnell will lead them. And there are those in the Tory party hoping Purnell will assist them.

One Tory strategist is grateful to him: "Labour is now attempting to do the heavy lifting on welfare reform: they feel they need to. The likes of Purnell are making it acceptable to question those welfare recipients who see handouts as a way of life. This is good for us; it means we can be radical without any of the usual finger-pointing."

A colleague disagrees: "It's less about finger-pointing. Purnell's strategy is all about positioning himself. It is literally impossible to deliver anything he says before the end of this parliament. If he starts these pilot projects, great. It means we can get more done, more quickly, should we form the next government.

"If he wants to mark himself out as the heir to Blair and he loses, his political career could be over by the time he's 40," he adds, not entirely displeased.

Early-bird Tories who saw Purnell on the BBC's Sunday AM before the Cameron interview did not feel hugely intimidated. One press officer simply said: "What's all the fuss about? The only MPs up for Purnell are those that hate Brown, but these guys would rather report to a hamster than to Gordon." There is little interest in any of the younger potentials - Miliband, Balls, or Alexander. In the past, geeky Tory boys were quite keen on tracking their nemeses, but they don't seem bothered now new thrills beckon.

The Tories quietly hoped, in the late 1990s, that Labour would sort out public services, but wouldn't get the credit for it. By the time the Tories got back into office, their opponents would have cleared the undergrowth. This has not happened.

The recent spotlight on welfare is relevant to the forthcoming by-election in Glasgow. A Tory MP visiting the Scottish city this past week was uncharacteristically passionate. "Every member of my party should have been in Glasgow East today to see what a broken society looks like," he said. "These people have had a Labour government for a hundred years, and look where it's got them. David should have insisted everyone walks the streets of Easterhouse to witness what the 'left' produces.

"What is astonishing is the amount of money that has been ploughed into this area with no results," he went on. "Labour disgust me. It is as if they're content for these people to remain poor and have no control."

He went on to single out "vile examples" of Labour MPs whom he had seen canvassing, and let off a great deal of steam. Perhaps before punching a hole with his bare fist through a derelict drop-in centre.

The Conservatives are now thinking in terms of government. There is much talk of preparation, of learning from Blair's mistakes of 1997 in forming a government they consider to have been totally unprepared. Cameron is not under as much pressure as last summer, but his speech at party conference in Birmingham will still be important. A Cameron aide says: "It's got to set the agenda for government."

One thing is for certain - the hunger is there. And hunger based not just on Gordon Brown's shortcomings, or David Cameron's success, but on anger: the sort that the Tories have needed for 11 years.

Brown is prob ably quite lucky that MPs on both sides of the House have the summer in which to calm down.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class