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20 September 2007

Dave tries to hide his smile

Tories try not to crow as financial disaster shows Brown is vulnerable

By Tara Hamilton-Miller

At Conservative Party headquarters they are gearing up towards the Labour party conference, buoyed by the prospect of difficulties ahead for Gordon Brown. There’s not just Northern Rock, but also the EU treaty and disgruntled unions. Until now it’s all been about politics, and Brown has been able to set the agenda. But from here on, events will set the agenda.

It’s unlikely that the Prime Minister will call an election during his conference speech in Bournemouth, but the Conservatives are preparing for every eventuality. An email sent by the Tory chief whip, Patrick McLoughlin, invites MPs to a parliamentary briefing meeting with David Cameron at Portcullis House. Depending on what Brown says, election or no election, David will brief MPs on the fighting themes.

There is a lot of pre-conference tension, an awareness of how important these four days are. The mood is described by one MP as “a strange mixture of hope and fear”. “We need to pull this one off,” he says.

If an election is called, the contingency plan is to have a two-day conference the following week. The manifesto has to be written now and there are already drafts going round. Oliver Letwin is writing it.

When the Northern Rock bank crisis happened, Cameron accused Brown of presiding over a huge rise in public and private debt, and the government churlishly suggested the Tory leader was acting irresponsibly.

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A party strategist is unworried. “Most voters care less about what Cameron did when he was just out of university working for Norman Lamont than about the Northern Rock debacle, which has happened recently under Brown’s watch,” he says. “I’m surprised it took Cameron three days to say it, bearing in mind it hit Thursday. If it had been Labour, they would have been on to it in a flash.”

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Black Wednesday

Certainly, Cameron’s timing and words were cautious. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he demanded answers rather than a fight. He hinted that the economic woes should be laid at Brown’s door, but did not actually say it directly. An honest MP makes the fairly obvious point that “the Tories need to be careful not to look as though they’re enjoying other people getting into financial difficulty or using it for political gain”.

It is agreed Cameron has played it well. “It’s a difficult call to judge economic performance, it could change in a matter of weeks. Labour looks childish pointing out that David worked with Norman [Lamont] during Black Wednesday. He wasn’t the chancellor. Perhaps the government should concentrate on their risky strategy of sending out signals they will bail out banks.”

Most party workers are unable to give an exact date of when Black Wednesday was, which is a good thing – that would be a sign of an extremely misspent youth.

Cameron’s strategists have watched Brown like hawks to see how he copes with financial disorder. “This was a real litmus test for us – an economic disaster to see how Brown copes. As we expected, the PM has kept out of it. But there are only so many scenarios under which he can hide behind the response ‘the Prime Minister will be chairing a meeting of Cobra this afternoon’.”

One suggests that if Labour wants it to be a battle between responsibility for Black Wednesday and Northern Rock the response will be: “It’s the economy stupid.”

The tone of the conference is no nonsense. Cameron is determined to be bullish and up front, even about subjects that may have been controversial. There will be a video of the much-debated Rwanda trip, and Dave will share a platform with the president of Rwanda. There will not be any excuses.