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30 August 2007

Cameron: the gloves are off

The Tories are readying for battle; social breakdown will be their weapon against Brown

By Tara Hamilton-Miller

History records that Conservative Party leaders have often locked themselves away surrounded only by close-knit staff. It is recent, but there have been mumblings that a moat is beginning to encircle “Camerot”, as David Cameron’s offices are sardonically known. The leader has made the wise decision to move a large group of his team back to Conservative Party headquarters from his House of Commons office, where, says an aide, “There was an increasing feeling of too many cooks.” The move includes Cameron himself having a permanent office at Conservative HQ for the first time.

Also going back will be George Osborne’s team, for the same reasons: not only for accessibility, which they correctly believe is vital to success, but also because it will be the centre of operations for the election campaign strategy that they confidently say is well under way.

Party workers report a disjointed week at CCHQ. A senior strategist describes the health debacle (in which the government accused the Tories of getting their figures wrong in a hospital closures report) as “a minor wobble”, and he is right.

What happened – two misprints by a researcher – was clumsy and unfortunate, but it was not enough to unsteady the voters’ opinions on who they trust with health. “The fact remains that we revealed proposals which will mean more than 29 hospitals having their services downgraded, and thankfully people appear to have picked up on this,” says a member of the health team.

“Knock him off his perch”

But this needn’t have happened. So high command has ordered that, for Stephen Dorrell’s launch of the policy review on education this coming week, any statistics must be checked with military precision. As an exhausted staffer admits: “One more needless print cock-up, and we might start to look a bit stupid.”

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The death of 11-year-old Rhys Jones prompted Cameron to change the subject of his 24 August speech at Brize Norton from defence to social breakdown. He wrote it at home on the Thursday night and emailed it to his team at eight the next morning. “It was written in haste, but this is an issue David has considered for months now,” says an aide. “The suggestions about video games and rap were not made for sensationalism.”

Cameron has been on the front foot when it comes to social breakdown since before he became leader. During the party leadership contest, when Iain Duncan Smith offered a platform to all contenders to speak at a Centre for Social Justice event, he gave a passionate speech on the importance of giving the voluntary sector a role in tackling social problems. (This was at a time when it was widely considered that David Davis was a dead cert to win.)

On the day Cameron was elected, he chose to spend his first hours as leader with IDS visiting the East Side Young Leaders’ Academy, a charity providing after-school education for Afro-Caribbean males deemed at risk of exclusion. He spoke about families, the danger of guns and the importance of support starting in the home.

There were many of Cameron’s advisers, both politicians and officials, who were sceptical or doubtful about whether their liberal Conservative idol should be working so closely with IDS (some were horrified). A shadow cabinet member recalls: “We were surprised at the emphasis David was put ting on the breakdown of society. It seemed too old-school Tory and strategically wrong. I was even more concerned about the appointment of Iain for the social breakdown review.” Cameron overrode these concerns, and it is paying off.

It’s Time to Fight Back, a document whose title alone will have them making jam in the Home Counties, was launched at the end of August. The work of Steve Hilton, Danny Kruger and Andy Coulson, it pulls together all the crime policy released over the past year and a few new thoughts. It’s causing quite a stir. An emotional female press officer is quite overcome. “It’s not just a document on combating crime,” she says, “but a mission statement on how we are feeling.”

One of the contributors explains: “The point is that the two parties have different thinking on this issue. We think these murders are the tip of a very wide iceberg originating from disorder and disrespect. Brown thinks it’s all down to gangs.”

The feeling that a real fight is about to begin is expressed by a usually placid Cameron aide. “We are certainly going to be more aggressive. We will continue to use the breakdown of society as a stick to beat the government. Tactically, our objective has to be to knock Brown off his perch, so far off that he will shy away from an October election. We have to make Brown doubt he can win.”

He adds with a sneer: “We’ll push him off. He hasn’t got the guts.” The gloves are off.