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12 December 2005

How to make him sweat

For the first time since 1997, Labour's inner circles sense there is a real opposition and, what's m

By Martin Bright

The anti-Cameron war room in Downing Street is already up and running. “We realise we are up against a Premiership team now, when we have been dealing with a Championship side so far,” is how one senior aide to the Prime Minister described the Tory challenge to me. In the laddish world of new Labour, where football is the lingua franca, this is a considerable compliment to David Cameron. Admittedly, it was followed by a swift qualification: “We are fighting a proper oppo-sition, but it is not Chelsea.” Yet Tony Blair’s team believes Cameron will give Labour the first real competition it has faced in a decade, and that is a tribute to the 39-year-old newcomer, who has been playing in the top league for only four years.

Each meeting of key advisers inside No 10 now addresses “the Cameron issue”. One of the main figures in these discussions will be Conor Ryan, David Blunkett’s former spin-doctor. Ryan, a formidable operator with a photographic memory for the detail of policy, has been tasked with getting Blair’s Education Bill past Labour MPs early next year. He knows that Cameron’s tactic, in smothering the government with support, is to make Blair’s divorce from his own party permanent.

Considerable work is being done, in preparation for pre-emptive strikes, on Cameron’s political past and his limited policy announcements during the leadership campaign. The plan is to leave people in no doubt that he is a man of the right, despite his attempts to represent himself as a centrist politician. Labour politicians will be briefed to play up his role as an adviser to Norman Lamont and Michael Howard under the last Tory government, and to highlight his attempts to win over the Tory right during the May election campaign. His establishment of a commission on the flat tax, his proposal to withdraw from the European People’s Party Group in the European Parliament and his commitment to bolstering the family have laid him open to the charge of being a Conservative in the traditional mould.

This line of attack was already evident in the television interviews given by Labour MPs straight after the Cameron coronation. Speaking even before Cameron had made his acceptance speech, Ed Miliband, the former Treasury adviser, declared: “A flat tax would mean that a nurse paid the same percentage of their income in tax as a billionaire. David Cameron is perfectly entitled to his view that that’s a good idea. I don’t think that’s where the British people are, I think that will offend their sense of fairness, and I don’t think it’s where the country wants to go.” Miliband went on: “I think David Cameron is still pretty much stuck in the past, maybe not in terms of his image, maybe not in terms of his love of The Smiths, but actually in terms of his philosophy.”

Among some in the Labour machine there is genuine admiration for the way Cameron dealt with questions about whether he took drugs as a student. This is matched with a growing belief that he is beginning to show as much panache in shedding his political past as he has in blocking off discussions about his past private life. This has been most striking in the way he has dissociated himself from the 2005 Tory manifesto, which he was directly responsible for writing. The media have chosen to give Cameron a blank slate and indulge his selective memory.

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The longer-term strategy will focus on Cameron’s relation-ship with his own party. “His fundamental problem,” says a Downing Street adviser, “is that there is one set of policies that appeals to the public and quite another that appeals to the Conservative Party membership and his MPs.” On immigration, terrorism, crime and Europe, the government will test his claims to occupy the centre ground. Labour has two options – either to push him on to Tory core-vote territory that has failed to increase the party’s share of the vote, or to force him on to civil libertarian terrain seen to be unpopular, for other reasons, with the electorate. Many on the Blairite wing of Labour sense a potential weak point for Cameron in his opposition to the proposed 90 days’ detention without trial for terror suspects, which apparently had the backing of the majority of the British people, if not parliament.

The Labour machine has been brutally effective at sniffing out the weaknesses in a Tory leader. This was possible because Blair’s office, the party and Gordon Brown were united in their ruthlessness. This is no longer the case and there is serious concern that the three are no longer working on the same strategy. While Blair’s people treat Cameron with respect, party headquarters is confused, and Brown appears dismissive.

Many of Labour’s most effective attack dogs have left the front line, including Rottweiler-in-chief Alastair Campbell. In addition, there are many inside the party who feel that the approach which dispensed so brilliantly with John Major, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith was looking tired even by the time of Michael Howard’s arrival. “There is a time and a place for these things,” says one former Labour strategist. “But it would be a strategic mistake to attack him just because he went to Eton, for instance. If you do that, you look like a class warrior.”

Brown has yet to make up his mind about how seriously to take Cameron. In private, the Chancellor is inquisitive about the new kid, while appearing confident that he can see him off without much bother. During the Commons exchanges over his pre-Budget report, Brown scored a direct hit on his shadow, George Osborne, with the brisk put-down: “They say the Conservatives are about to skip a generation. On that evidence, perhaps they should skip another.” But it is at least the third time he has used this quip. It is almost as if he despises his opponent so much he can’t even be bothered to think up a new joke.

Perhaps Brown is right and Labour will swallow up Cameron and Osborne as it has consumed other opposition challengers. But it will not happen until Blair’s office, the party and the Chancellor agree on the level of the threat posed by their new adversaries and hit upon a consistent strategy to deal with them.

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