The politics column - Richard Reeves

Maybe an MP or two might cross the floor to Cameron. Could Shaun Woodward do it twice? (Churchill di

We are back, then, in the bracing climate of three-party politics. I don't mean the Liberal Democrats, of course: for that ragtag, plucky bunch the only way is down. The new triangle in British politics is the one formed by Tony Blair and his two heirs apparent. After years of a two-way struggle between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor - of the "TB-GBs" - the Conservatives are at last in the frame.

Bicycling David Cameron is repositioning the image of his party with a pace that makes the early Blair look pedestrian. He believes that only a "new Labour" Conservative Party can win. Blair's view is that Labour will lose only when it forgets to be "new" Labour. Brown's view is that his views will become clear once he is safely inside No 10, thank you very much.

Cameron's momentum has surprised even some of his supporters. That the Conservative Party website was changed within minutes of his victory being declared is passing into Westminster legend. In practical terms, it could have waited until the next morning. But this stage is all about symbols, and what the website story symbolises is: this guy is well-prepared, technologically savvy, forward-thinking and deadly serious. But it is on the policy side that Cameron's symbolic shifts matter most. He and his team are consciously aping Blair's 1990s strategy of grabbing Conservative land on crime, family and wealth creation.

So each pronouncement and interview takes a longer stride into centre-left territory. Cameron daubs himself in green, putting the glamorous Zac Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist, up front on climate change. He purloins the Labour language of "social justice"; piggybacks on a report from the Equal Opportunities Commission to declare the "moral" wrong of pay discrimination against women. And, most eye-catching of all, he partners Peter Lilley (remember him, the Thatcherite social security minister?) with Bob Geldof to address development issues.

So far, so good: the Conservatives have been rewarded with a healthy bounce in their polling figures. The new compassionate conservatism personified by the family man who conducts interviews at his kitchen table is finally allowing the Tories to shed their "nasty party" skin.

Cameron has done the easy bit - which is still more than any of his predecessors managed. But when he has to translate his symbols and third-way rhetoric into policy the love-fest will be over. It is inconceivable that Lilley can propose policies that Geldof will endorse, that Goldsmith can win over the CBI, or that the EOC's demand for compulsory gender pay audits by businesses will be met by the new-look Tories. But one should not underestimate his determination to reshape his own party.

Blair and his closest supporters view Cameron with a mixture of fear and admiration. There is no doubt that in many policy areas - most importantly public service reform - Cameron is closer to Blair than most of the Parliamentary Labour Party and cabinet, and perhaps even Brown himself: the triangle is not an equilateral one. Maybe an MP or two might cross the floor to Cameron. Could Shaun Woodward do it twice? (Churchill did, after all.) Perhaps a former Labour adviser will pop up on the other side. John Birt? Julian Le Grand? Martin Taylor?

Parlour games like this play on a current structural tension. We are in the unprecedented situation of a prime minister, who has pre-announced his political mortality, probably needing the support of his official opponent to enact the reforms he believes vital to his legacy, which are opposed by the supporters of his certain heir, the Chancellor. This is an unsustainable position. Blair is trying to make huge withdrawals of political capital just at the point when his account is empty; Brown is understandably keeping his reforms on ice; and Cameron is making hay. Labour politics is crippled, while Conservative politics is reignited. It is for this reason Blair has to go, and soon.

If Brown is given a fair run, his chances at the next election are very good. He has his own 100-day plan to seize the momentum back from the Conservatives. Even allowing for the growing volatility of the electorate, it will not be easy to overturn Labour's majority. And, contrary to received opinion, a struggling economy will play in Brown's favour - a politician of Cameron's brand is likely to succeed only when the economy is stable and people feel secure enough to risk a change.

The longer the BBC (Blair-Brown-Cameron) triangle stands, the worse Labour's chances at the next election become. It would be best if Blair himself came to this conclusion. There is no indication he has. But in politics, the party that is most ruthless in the pursuit of power tends to win; Blair is a prime example. Now the Conservatives have recovered their historic ruthlessness, just as Labour seems to have lost the necessary steel.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The death of freedom