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21 June 2007

Giving Dave a headache

Just when the Tories have a real strategy to announce, a banana skin presents itself

By Tara Hamilton-Miller

Keeping the faithful faithful and keeping the faithless quiet was always going to be a delicate and long-running test for David Cameron. After a significant few days featuring the odd moronically wrong announcement, speech and poll, his team is embarking on “an election strategy against Brown, beginning next week”.

Never mind the strategy, the problem is the cock-ups. It is impossible to find a party aide who understands what made Hugo Swire suggest that museums might be allowed to charge admission. Why mention it? Phone calls to party headquarters produced creative reactions ranging from “I’ll call you back” to “I dunno, he made it up?” Swire’s failure to understand the likely reaction of the press was disappointing for everyone, and what really riled party workers was the huge amount of work that had gone into the past week’s speeches and the NHS white paper. Even though he was one of the loyal early supporters of Cameron, there is much chat that Hugo will be the blue-blooded sacrifice in the “whoops, too many Etonians” shake-up. One sulky MP was particularly peeved that the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, had been able to have a pop. “It’s just typical that smug Jowell is first to berate when she’s been pilfering money from the arts to pay for her bloody Olympic logos.” A good point from a grumpy man.

In an attempt to curb the rising blunder quotient, Cameron has asked his close friend and aide George Bridges to validate every word put out in the name of the party. A Tory aide says, “Yes, George is an Old Etonian, but he is very shrewd and has a sense of what is real.” George is a grandson of Sir Edward Bridges, the wartime head of the Cabinet Office, and a great-grandson of Robert Bridges the poet laureate; he was also at No 10 under John Major. As such, he has seen what can, and will, go wrong. With his trademark spectacles, he’s quite decorative, too – think “Jarvis Cocker in Gieves & Hawkes”. It is a huge responsibility that no more gaffes (or “misinterpretations”, as they are called at party HQ) happen. George, who is known in Tory circles as “the chicest of geeks”, does have a lot of respect. Only this past week, Cameron was heard insisting down his mobile, “If you want something done – get George Bridges.” However, no matter how much control you may have over press releases and speeches, not even Bridges can prevent throwaway comments made by blethering MPs. That is the real challenge.

This is not a vision

Another challenge is the often-made rejoinder “What does Cameron actually stand for?” – a question posed by whiny, pinched Labour females and pleased-with-themselves lefty comics/lifestyle commentators. They will be relieved to see that the Tories have just launched a white paper on the NHS. A confident senior aide is adamant: “This is not a pithy vision. It’s not a consultation. This is manifesto policy, in print, proving we are behind the NHS and what exactly we will do.” Party members will certainly be comforted to see policy. Another aide says tentatively, “I think it is extremely brave. We could have had two years to put this policy out there, but we decided not to hold back.”

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The press office was buoyed by the Pavlovian response of Gordon Brown. A press officer sneered, “Brown, PM in less than a week, clearly made a call to his chums at GMTV to swiftly announce his intention to ‘tour the country to find out what people want of their NHS’.” The Conservative press corps are obviously watching Brown closely. He added, “Gordon also gave a speech at Unison, a last-minute addition to the line-up: an unprepared, stumbling, uncombed performance, in an attempt to gain our ground on health.”

Feedback from party members on Tory websites indicates they are pleased that the shadow home secretary, David Davis, is to have a task force to develop policies of “social mobility”. Even though this was written up in the following day’s press as Davis stepping in to neutralise a tricky moment for Cam eron, a Davis aide is keen to point out that the idea was not introduced hurriedly. “The idea of a social mobility task force came to David over Christmas” – I’m imagining angels and ethereal lighting around his Aga in Yorkshire – “and he wrote a piece which appeared in the Sunday Times on New Year’s Eve.” Davis will look at issues such as the housing ladder, not going the university route, and vocational training.

The Research Department’s policy review findings will continue over the summer. But in the coming week, during the Blair/Brown butterfly-to-moth changeover, the Tories plan to sit back and observe. The week after that, expect social justice from Iain Duncan Smith and, next month, global poverty, economic competitiveness and sustaining rural communities. The mood at party headquarters is uncharacteristically serious, as earnest workers are determined that 18 months of dedicated hard graft not be wasted in half a paragraph of press coverage, or utterly obscured because a shadow cabinet member announces all kittens must die. “We’ve done our homework. We haven’t been locked in Millbank making paper airplanes, or building chewing-gum shrines to the leader,” says a researcher. Not like the Duncan Smith days, then.

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