In a fix, start a fight

The Tories will have a hard job proving that they could handle a global recession better

Team Cameron is having to consider how to play an economic crash. It looks churlish to grin; you can't gloat since Schadenfreude looks negative and you might be branded nasty again. So the past 20 years and a series of damaging slip-ups are being scrutinised. One shadow cabinet member has been inspired by Robert Harris's Imperium (an imaginary biography of the rise of Cicero in Ancient Rome). He says: "There are two solutions, the first being, when you are in a fix and don't know what to do - start a fight. Even if there is no answer, at least the battle will show the true colours of those involved.

"The second is to be ultra positive. We freely give the government our economic wisdom, we selflessly say to Brown: 'The country is facing a crisis it hasn't seen for 15 years; we will lay down our weapons; we'll help.' Obama would probably do the latter," he adds tellingly.

Last July, David Cameron said of Gordon Brown's "honeymoon": "He should enjoy this, because this is as good as it gets." Seven months on, the polls are looking increasingly promising for the Conservatives. Where will voters turn with the collapse of Northern Rock and a possible global recession? Will they want a change from Brown or will they, as the electorate did in 1992 with John Major, stay with a leader who has experience of government?

A Tory strategist says: "In '92 it was Major versus Kinnock. David Cameron is not Neil Kinnock. The country was not buying Neil Kinnock, he's a moron. They didn't see him as an experienced leader, but it was more than that. He did not come across as someone you would leave in charge of anything. That's where the Conservatives differ in 2008."

None the less there is concern from some that with a turbulent economy, the electorate may seek safety in the incumbent leader.

As one backbencher puts it: "If you were on a flight that was going to crash like the BA plane last week, who do you want at the controls? The pilot or the young first officer?" As it happens, it was the young first officer who did a remarkable job landing the Boeing 777 at Heathrow, but full marks for a topical metaphor.

Cameron's team is monitoring Brown's every move and cabinet "trouble". One aide says: "Brown had two reputations, both of which are in serious jeopardy: economic competence and honesty. He's losing both; he seems almost bewildered by the route his party has taken."

A vocal Cameroon says: "He's a ditherer. His dithering means he got the top job only by proxy so late in life. Northern Rock, again, dithering. A character trait that in the past made him look solid and trusting will be his downfall. We will make something of his so-called prudence, it was a front for cowardice and fear."

But first the Conservatives have to lose the tag of economic failures themselves (though most Tory MPs are convinced it's fading). The same Cameroon claims: "People are now neutral on our economic competence. People do not think we are economic geniuses, yet; it's hard to prove when you have a young team with no experience of government."

George Osborne, a more languid figure than Cameron, with loyal staff and increasing respect from even his older colleagues, has the job of convincing them. When Michael Howard made him shadow chancellor, there were grumbles from seasoned MPs. Their concerns have lessened. A well-lunched oldie says: "We all knew Geoffrey Howe could never really get the better of Denis Healey. This is not the case with Osborne and [Alistair] Darling. He's grown in stature." And there's still hope George's soprano tones might drop an octave before an election.

The prediction is that interest rates will fall, so the Tories will be cautious. If interest rates are cut to below 4 per cent months before an election, the Tories would have to be prepared for the favourable reaction that would bring.

So expect more talk about waste. Strategists took the view that had they talked about waste too early on, the government would easily shoot back with the accusation that the Tories considered the entire public sector a waste.

The X Factor public is much readier these days to sack an incompetent government, so expect the Conservatives to use this time to gauge public feeling. They need a few catchphrases that fit the public mood. On the economy, they will try to demonstrate that Brown's government is shambolic. The gunning will be for Brown.

That's a goal, Iain

An unlikely, though not unwelcome, interruption to all the doom and gloom came on Wednesday from former leader Iain Duncan Smith. IDS has "Done a Hague", the process by which a Tory leader becomes more interesting, smiley and popular once the party has lost confidence in him. This week Iain held a debate presenting facts and figures showing that foreign footballers are increasingly dominating the Premiership (unlike other countries) to the detriment of the England team. Great stuff. Duncan Smith could well be the saviour of British football, and with a crippling monetary Armageddon on the way, think of all the money saved on foreign players. Hooray.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer