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11 October 2007

A new taste for blood

Tories will build on the past, not break from it, as "old school" politics leaves MPs quietly jubila

By Tara Hamilton-Miller

“I’m not going to give an unscripted speech,” joked David Cameron at the start of his first parliamentary meeting of the new term. The gathering of Conservative MPs was short but the message was clear – a thank you to his party, a call for continued unity and for a bolder, more aggressive style than before. No more Mr Nice Guy, the leader said. Keep on battering Brown no matter how he repackaged his policies.

In stark contrast to the emergency meeting Cameron had held the previous week, the entire Commons party turned up, as well as half the peers. A bigger room had to be booked to take the new, undivided right. With the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, at Cameron’s side to talk the troops through the Tory response to the pre-Budget report, there was definitely a fresh spirit in the air. Those elected from 2001 onwards were amazed that things could be this good.

That morning, 11 Tory MPs had gathered in the House of Commons members’ tea room at the overly keen hour of 8am. There was lots of backslapping; a couple of the 2005 intake even attempted a high-five. Three young MPs with worryingly small majorities had gone out on Saturday night to celebrate the no-election news and were discussing the evening’s rather fruity antics. There was not one Labour MP to be seen. In Portcullis House, Tories queued at the Des patch Box coffee shop, beaming at each other. The early birds included Liam Fox and a strutting David Davis, both of whom had put in good performances the previous week in Blackpool. No Labour MPs there, either.

Originally there had been plans to launch another policy on Sunday to keep the momentum up. In the end the party rightly decided against. “If Gordon had waited a day, or even had the guts to do Andrew Marr live, he’d have had another spending commitment out of us,” says a Tory strategist.

Having learned from Brown, the Conservatives do not want to look jubilant, but behind closed doors they are cock-a-hoop that a combination of Cameron, a tax announcement and best behaviour has paid off.

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A shadow minister who was having sleepless nights only a week ago says: “Old-school party politics won over and a genuine sense of victory now seems possible.”

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Tory MPs have taken much satisfaction from the embarrassing back-pedalling of the three prom-queen teasers: Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander and David Miliband. This young trio has been a constant source of irritation for Tories, and there has been a lot of playground sniggering at the discomfort of Labour’s “It” boys.

Gordon Brown has done the Conservative Party an enormous favour; he has given it a dry election run. Candidates have their literature ready; most had ordered posters and had winning-smile photographs taken. One MP sums it up: “Cameron won the 2007 election he never would have won.”

The task ahead is now long-term, and the Tories are wasting no time planning the next 18 months. “Admittedly, we’ve been scratching around for two years, and Brown was the catalyst for us getting our act together,” says a Cam eron aide. Strategy meetings and policy launches are being pencilled in, based on an election in 2009, and the mood is confident and fierce, with the more experienced urging newer recruits to maintain the commitment shown in the fortnight before conference.

The party having come to the conclusion that the electorate is still seduced by traditional Tory ideas, modernisation will be much more subtle. A shadow minister says carefully: “The theme is not a break from the past, but building on the past.” There will be a real thrust to knock the Liberal Democrats, as the Tories know the Lib Dems are in a very delicate position at present. So they will push hard to win back the naturally Conservative seats lost in the past three elections.

After the Comprehensive Spending Review, the aim is to get Tory policy out there to the voters and to crush Gordon. “With Brown going to Europe next week, there is another chance to do some severe ass-kicking,” says one of the many MPs with a newly acquired taste for blood.