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6 September 2007

Malcontents and moustaches

Dave returns to the fray to face twin charges of lurching to the right and shedding Tory principles

By Tara Hamilton-Miller

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, David Cameron stands accused of both those overused clichés, a lurch to the right and abandoning Tory values. “David is incredibly unemotional about it all,” says a tired aide. “I’d have lost it weeks ago, but he appears to almost expect it now.” Johan Eliasch, a party deputy treasurer, popped up to announce that he was off because he thought Cameron was appeasing the headbangers. Most of the recent criticism from within the party, however, has come from the opposite direction.

Michael Ancram, a former deputy leader, is well liked, but choosing the morning of the launch of the Conservatives’ public services review to attack Cameron for “trashing Thatcher’s legacy” was textbook Tory timing. Those who had spent hours working on the report were not best pleased. An older backbencher chum suggested Ancram was being “mischievous”. A younger shadow minister was livid that, once again, the headlines had been “hijacked by the self-indulgent, archaic ramblings of a bored man who has no idea how to win an election”.

Party members and hard-working candidates, furious with Ancram, vented their frustration on Conservative-leaning blogs. A Central Office employee said: “He’s apologised using the excuse, ‘I thought you made all your announcements on a Monday.’ It’s all quite annoying.” An MP familiar with Ancram’s guitar talents and his penchant for contemporary music took a more personal route: he suggested he should “retreat to his castle and practise his Coldplay chords”.

After a dispiriting August, the return to the political fray had started well for the Tories with polls showing that they were narrowing the gap on Gordon Brown, making a snap general election far less likely. Then came Ancram. The mood, however, is not one of panic. One Cameron strategist put it like this: “The ‘core vote’ Ancram strategy, by definition, will never win an election. Electoral victories are built on building a coalition – look at the Reagan Democrats, the Blair Tories. We need to get back to coalition-building and if this coalition leaves Ancram out, then so be it. The unreconstructed left bitched and moaned about Blair and his new Labour Party, so all this is expected.”

As ever, the modernisers draw on examples from the Blair textbook. “Blair wore his frequent criticism from old-school Labour as a badge of honour to demonstrate that his party had moved on. Ancram is not the first to find fault in our strategy, and he will not be the last. Realistically, we are expecting many more. The difference between us and Labour in 1997 is that the left were quicker to come to the constructive conclusion they should stand by the politician the party voted for and the brand they bought in to.”

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Not bovvered

News that the MP Patrick Mercer, who had been forced to quit as homeland security spokesman after a row over alleged racist comments, and his fellow Tory John Bercow are to advise the Prime Minister in the areas of security and children did not, as one might expect, go down well.

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Although the party gave an official “not bothered” response, the feeling behind the scenes is far more uncomfortable. There is a belief that Mercer and Bercow are two carefully chosen victims. A frustrated MP said: “Brown has pulled a blinder by picking them. He’s singled out two disaffected MPs and given them meaningless jobs, sacrificial lambs.” A friend of Mercer’s and Bercow’s said: “These two have been played like pawns. Brown has no respect for either of them. I’m amazed that they fell for it. Ego, I suppose.”

Matchbox-sized Bercow has long been touted around as a possible defector. His Commons office on the fourth floor of Portcullis House is very close to that of Quentin Davies, the treacherous Gran tham MP who jumped ship to Labour in June. Those in surrounding offices refer to their patch as “Turncoat Corridor”.

Staff at Conservative Party headquarters, now armed with all but one of their policy reviews, have not abandoned preparations for an October poll. Over the next few weeks, MPs in target seats or those affected by boundary changes are to have meetings with Roger Pratt, an official who works specifically on constituency issues, in preparation for an early election call. Pratt has asked all of them to put together a detailed grid, particularly for the first 72 hours of campaigning. The plans will include visits to each seat by five shadow cabinet members. The dedicated target seats team has set up a specific “helpline” for those in need of advice.

All is not earnestness and gloom at head quarters. When not firefighting the remarks of ex-chairmen and other malcontents, a group of press officers is taking part in a “sponsored moustache” for a cancer charity. The three spin doctors are competing over the next four weeks to see who best cultivates that most dashing look of Peter Mandelson, circa 1985.