“It was a huge relief. At least we are talking about how we would run the country, not how ‘green’ and lovely we are.” That was the reaction of one Tory backbencher after the Conservative Party published a consultation put forward by John Redwood on tax and red tape on 17 August. There were whispers that Redwood had launched the document at a time when Cameron was not around so that he could push ideas as party policy. This is not true. The Tory leader has rubber-stamped all the consultations he commissioned, safe in the knowledge that he does not have to take on board any of the proposals submitted. (These reports are merely consultations.) Four days later, another report followed and Cameron gave a measured performance on the Today programme talking about the NHS and social breakdown.
This is Cameron venturing into Phase Two, and it’s about time. For weeks now the party has gone through dirge, exasperation and openly admitted surprise at the power of Brown’s bounce. Lethargic MPs, candidates and party members have been getting irritable, and historically this has always been trouble for a party that refuses to see its own fickleness as an obstacle. A usually sanguine shadow minister mumbled to colleagues last week: “Heir to Blair? We’re going down the road of Heir to Kinnock.”
Cameron’s “bare-knuckle” fight on the NHS, against the downgrading of services at district hospitals, has finally focused the Conservatives in the political centre. The shadow health secretary, Andrew Lansley (affectionately nicknamed “Angela Lansbury”), is particularly comforted. It was a grimacing Lansley who had to sit through a press conference in May when he launched the health white paper with Cameron but received no coverage, as it was at the height of the grammar schools debacle.
News of a possible October election has not created much of a stir. At the time of going to press, after much debate in the media about possible election dates, only one “stand by your beds” email had been sent to MPs and candidates from the party chairman, Caroline Spelman. “It had all the urgency of a dental tooth scrape reminder,” says one recipient. Back at Conservative campaign headquarters, possible election fever mania is also being treated with a laid-back approach. There is a reduced work rota because of recess and the girls while away the hours at the City Inn bar playing Musical Miliband Three-Way, a game whose complex title far outweighs the simplicity of the slightly rude rules.
In the past, the chairman has usually been in charge of an election campaign, but Cameron has appointed his shadow chancellor, George Osborne. This is certainly not a slight to likeable Spelman, but Cameron displaying trust and loyalty to a friend who backed him from the very beginning. David and George have a very different relationship from Tony and Gordon. They were both hot tickets in the Conservative Research Department and were special advisers before becoming MPs. A close friend says, “They have a very mature relationship: it’s not quite Rolf Harris ‘Two Little Boys’ stuff, but they have similar backgrounds and an understanding of each other that has been cultivated over years.”
A Cameron aide backing this theory says, “With Blair and Brown it was obvious that neither could trust the other. George and David share a strong sense of mutual respect. They instinctively know how the other will react, so conflict is avoided. You are more likely to see them with their wives and children at a mutual chum’s BBQ than doing deals in a restaurant.”
An ex-CCHQ senior researcher recalls when David and George were fledgling MPs and attending Prime Minister’s Questions preparation for Iain Duncan Smith. “The pair of them would walk in, were slightly dismissive of IDS, would rip up the script, give their lines, eat a croissant and breeze out.” He adds, “The air of confidence and self-assurance was magnificent. There was, of course, an inner desire to punch them.”
Cameron and Osborne share a suite of offices, which allows them to bounce ideas off each other daily. There is no rivalry between the camps that work for them, and no sense of George wanting to be leader; he is comfortable in his secondary role. At the moment.
Osborne will come into his own this autumn, featuring in numerous glossy magazines over the next few months. Currently he appears in Esquire‘s “Ten admired men” (apparently the fashion director “came over all funny” when she saw the proofs of the young shadow chancellor shivering by the Houses of Parliament).
If the much-repeated analogy of Blair and Brown was Lennon and McCartney, who are David Cameron and George Osborne? Perhaps it is too early to say. Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Mick and Keith, Ant and Dec? The general election will be a test of their partnership.