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21 May 2007

Keep the powder dry

The view from the other side: Cameron's plan is to wait for Brown to trip up

By Tara Hamilton-Miller

Six tedious weeks of the Prime Minister saying adieu, and a Chancellor enthusiastically auditioning for the role, what’s an opposition leader to do? In 2005, when David Cameron became Conservative Party leader, the government knew that getting any coverage would be a struggle against an unknown 39-year-old who came complete with aesthetically pleasing followers and a heavily pregnant wife. Wisely, the government sat back and did very little; they knew it would be like flying kites in a strong wind.

Seventeen months later, and the Conservatives have had to take the same tack as the PM begins his farewell tour and the Chancellor replaces his grimace with a grin. They can but sit back and endure the blanket coverage he’s been receiving. A frustrated shadow minister conceded: “Everyone accepts that Brown is the only interesting game in town, and there’s no point competing. It would be a waste of time launching any initiatives now; our powder will remain dry.”

There is also a sense of wanting to keep clean; getting down in the gutter with Brown is not the plan. The Tory leader is likely to offer what Camp Cameron calls “a series of constructive criticisms”. This is not threatening, gloves-off stuff.

A hyperactive Conservative research department is producing guidance and briefings for journalists every step of Brown’s campaign, whether it be revealing that the housing minister Yvette Cooper made Brown’s hyped eco-homes announcement a year ago, or that the figures for his new education plans are unworkable. The Tory leader may allow the Chancellor his honeymoon, but in the back rooms, a team of young, Oxbridge, smarty-pants kicks into action every time Brown speaks. At present, the mood is buoyant and their endeavours are powered by a reinvigorated passion and a belief that a Conservative government is imminent.

A new system was set up in the Conservative communications department this past week. Shadow cabinet ministers now have to be available on the phone when the first editions of the following day’s press arrive at 10.45pm, which enables them to get a quote or rebuttal out for the second editions. It’s a small change, but it’s telling that a 24-hour operation is in place.

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Conservatives believe that Brown’s faults will be exposed in his new role. The Chancellor’s a grid man; he is used to making decisions when he is ready, on his own terms. They’ll be watching to see how quick he is on his feet. His lack of spontaneity has been pinpointed as one of his weaknesses. His penchant is for going AWOL when the going gets tough; the opposition will exploit the fact that he can no longer do this.

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The unfortunate episode when Brown’s head was totally obscured by an autocue had staff in Conservative campaign headquarters sniggering with glee. Surprisingly, a sweet-natured Tory girl told colleagues to stop laughing, pleading, “Bless him, he doesn’t even know it’s happening.” Eliciting pity from a Zara-clad Camerette is not a good look for the Big Clunking Fist.

Cameron recently spent two days staying with a Muslim family in Birmingham. He’s teaching pupils in Hull this week; expect more of the same kind of spectacle. Cameron will use this curious time to explore communities. He knows he doesn’t need to concern himself with the Labour leadership, and if he picks up some publicity on the way, all the better. What’s next is anyone’s guess; perhaps he’ll crash with a few Poles and be photographed, perched on a chintz sofa, sharing a big bowl of grochowka.

Cameron is keen to show that the rest of the shadow cabinet are as trustworthy and likeable as the polls suggest he is. Certain camera-loving shadow cabinet members will be enthused by discussions to push forward more faces to the public than just his.

One senior aide sees it as a wait-and-see game. “We don’t have any idea how the public is going to react. Why should a Conservative leader, ahead in the polls, enter into a direct debate with a candidate for the Labour leadership?”