The future looks bluer

What would life under the Conservatives really be like? It might turn out to be remarkably similar t

It is surely only a matter of time before someone suggests the obvious solution to Labour's charisma deficit: bring back Tony Blair. He's young enough. Winston Churchill came back from political oblivion, as did Charles de Gaulle, and even Alex Salmond left the leadership of the Scottish National Party in 2000 only to return four years later. Think of Blair's comeback conference speech.

Fortunately, this nightmare on Downing Street is likely to remain just that. Blair is earning far too much to be interested in becoming PM again, and Cherie would have kittens. But the lack of any plausible alternative to busted Gordon Brown, short of his predecessor, is Labour's real tragedy. Like the upas tree, Brown has stunted the growth of everything beneath him. Most of the leadership "contenders" - David Miliband, James Purnell et al - are too young and untested. There are no heavyweight outsiders ready to wield the knife, as Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe did to Margaret Thatcher in 1990; there is no faction eager to seize power in a cabinet coup. For once, Labour is just too damned united for its own good.

The best person to replace Brown would have been Brown, but unfortunately he got lost somewhere on the way to No 10. Which leaves us with the uncomfortable conclusion, which the commentariat and some MPs are coming to after Crewe, that Labour has no alternative but to coast to defeat in 2010 under Gordon. It's just too much trouble to do anything else.

And perhaps it would be better for Labour to go into opposition for a while to work out what it stands for - though it could be a long while. Let the voters see what life under the nicely-nicely Tories would really be like. That'll bring them back home . . . or will it? I'm not so sure. The really dangerous question is whether, if the Cameron Tories took over, any- one would notice. Brown has been so assiduous in stealing Conservative themes and policies - on everything from inheritance tax to immigration - that voters might find the real thing rather more agreeable. At least David Cameron, Boris Johnson et al have better manners and sound vaguely human. By abolishing the 10p tax band, Brown even succeeded in making the Tories look like the party of the underprivileged, an astonishing feat. We used to think that Brown was somewhere to the left of Blair, but now we discover that he is considerably to the right: a dour son of the manse who gives to the banks what he takes from the poor.

Cameron can see the opportunities that the demoralisation of the British left presents. He's not stupid. Watch him tack to the left the better to move to the right - promising to scrap identity cards and 42-day detention, pressing ahead with Lords reform. The Tories will adopt a raft of green-sounding measures, on renewables and carbon trading, while relying on Brown's new nuclear power stations to keep the lights burning, and freezing fuel duty and taxes on big cars.

Left-field policies

The Tories will present themselves as the liberal alternative to statist authoritarianism. The more oppressive aspects of Labour's bureaucratic culture would be dismantled - the target obsession in the NHS, the neurotic performance testing of children, the intrusive vetting of Scout leaders and care workers. They might import some left-field policies such as free personal care for the elderly, which Tories in Scotland support.

Conservatives can triangulate, too. Why not a very modest restoration of council housebuilding (the Tories were famed for it in the 1950s), which would help the flatlined construction industry? That would really confound the left. What about a fast rail link to the north - a long-overdue infrastructure investment that would benefit the environment and bring Britain closer together?

These are the kinds of policies that thinking Tories will be looking at, as well as the more conventional tax and privatisation agenda. But even that will look different under Cameron. He plans to import Swedish schemes to let parents set up their own schools. Maybe Australian tax-free investment accounts for homebuyers. Wisconsin-style workfare, where unemployed people are allowed to collect benefits for a limited time only. The Tory shadow work and pensions secretary, Chris Grayling, has said that jobseekers might have to do community service after two years, as if unemployment were a crime.

But rhetorically at least, Brown has prepared the ground with his crackdown on incapacity benefits and with the housing minister Caroline Flint's shocking call for the unemployed to be denied council housing.

I'm not entirely sure that this "new Tory" strategy wouldn't work. There are few places Cameron can go that Brown hasn't already explored. The Tories called for cuts in immigration; Brown promised "British jobs for British workers". The Tories want a crackdown on crime, so Brown calls for yobs to be harassed in the streets. In fact, Brown takes much of his policy agenda off the peg from Daily Mail editorials in a way Cameron would be ashamed to emulate.

It is hard not to conclude that, in the short term at least, life under Cameron might be very similar to life under Brown. Business as usual with a turquoise tinge. The NHS will be free at the point of need, albeit with more private involvement; Trident will be retained; British forces will remain in Afghanistan and Iraq "until the job is done". Like Brown, the Tories will squeeze public sector pay and blame the workers for inflation when they strike to defend their living standards. The poor will stay poor, but then they are always with us.

Missed opportunity

There was nothing inevitable about the Conservatives returning as a viable political force. I believe there was an opportunity for Brown to have answered the present economic crisis with a bold, equalitarian Labour programme of tax reform, financial regulation and infrastructure investment. It was his historic mission. But if Brown can do nothing but flog the old neoliberal agenda, which even the Tories are questioning, what reason is there to vote Labour?

Brown's great achievement has been to make the Tories electable again. He not only disappointed and demoralised the British left, but also breathed life into a moribund oppo sition. Only a year or so ago, the Tories were in a mess over grammar schools, Europe and the environment, and coming third behind the Liberal Democrats in Ealing Southall and Sedgefield. David Cameron was regarded, even by many in his own party, as a lightweight, a PR man, the kind of politician who cycles to the Commons with his limo following at a discreet distance. Now he's motoring to victory.

And here's the final twist. I predict that one of the first things Prime Minister Cameron will do on entering N0 10 is invite one Tony Blair to tea to offer him a new advisory role in public sector reform. You heard it here first.

Iain Macwhirter is a political columnist for the Herald

Martin Bright is away

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack