Dapper and debonair, David Cameron's arrival as the charismatic leader of the British Conservative Party has significantly altered the political landscape. This is because the man who plays down his aristocratic antecedence has clearly signified that the Tory party is moving left-wards from their previous hard-right Thatcherite position - a shift that has brought it much closer to that of the current Labour government.
Although this may be seen as a compliment to Labour's winning policies, it does not guarantee that Prime Minister Tony Blair's party will win again in 2009. Indeed, the current situation is not unlike that in 1995, when Prime Minister John Major's Tories were in government. So, if the choice in three years time, is between two parties offering broadly the same thing then the prospects are bleak for a battle-scarred Labour government. By then Labour will presumably be led by an ageing Gordon 'charisma by-pass' Brown up against the formidable challenge of a fresh, if largely untried Tory opposition led by a wily, youthful Cameron. Moreover, the continuation of right-wing Blairite policies between now and then may result in growing fragmentation and rebellion among real Labour MPs and voters. Such public division will be as electorally damaging as it was then for the Tories.
The Cameron Conservative Party move to the centre is not without its difficulties. Right-wing votes in their true blue strongholds, like Surrey, where I live, could go to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the openly racist British National Party, or Lib-Dems, who have snatched parliamentary seats and councils here from the Tories in the past. Provided that on Europe Cameron maintains a sceptical stance the vast majority of the Tory right will remain loyal; particularly if they scent electoral victory. Cameron's MPs and candidates, hell-bent on getting back into power after three general election defeats, will not rock the boat and the party will appear more united than it really is.
Then they will win. The middle class elements, who deserted the Tories in 1997 - Middle England - will return to the Tory fold. But those people who deserted Labour or didn’t vote last year will have no reason not to maintain that position, even if their vote doesn’t go to the Lib Dems next time round.
If Middle England moves back to the Tories in 2009, Labour will lose unless it manages to win back the votes of those sections of the electorate whose natural focus would be Labour but who have either transferred their support to other parties or have stopped going to the polls as a result of political disenchantment with all the major parties. Indeed, many mainly leftish middle class voters were alienated over the Iraq invasion and became attracted to the 'anti-war' Lib Dems's more radical policies on taxation, ending unpopular student fees. The Lib Dems have so far capitalised on being the party to which you give your protest vote against Labour and the Tories.
The one thing in Labour’s favour is that Brown, to a certain extent, is an unknown quantity. It is difficult to ascertain what his real views on say Iraq, the health service and education are and whether his alleged differences with Blair are about his much-delayed succession to the coveted post of prime minister or policy. But it seems reasonable to assume that because of his background and social concerns, about which he has written books, there would be a greater emphasis on traditional Labour policies and goals, thus creating a changed climate in which the left would be in a stronger position to assert themselves. Some commentators have stuck their necks out to suggest that Brown, the heir to tradition of fellow Scot and short lived Labour leader John Smith, is really a closet socialist. I doubt it.
Tantalisingly then, Cameron, who was first elected to parliament just five years ago, may become the most inexperienced politician to win a general election in British history. But in the current circumstances his lack of a track record has its virtues. For one thing he wasn’t a part of the Tories’ unpopular governments in the early 1990s, so he can’t be blamed for what happened then like the poll tax. Aged just 39, he also looks and acts like a modern man in tune with the times. He made this point, to withering effect, during his first Prime Minister's Questions session in parliament by firmly telling Blair: “You were the future once”.
Cameron’s election represents a sharp change in course by the Tories. Their strategy under the three leaders prior to Cameron has been to attack the policies of Labour and Blair. While Cameron still hasn't formulated detailed policies, he seems to largely accept what Blair has done, from devolving power to Scotland and Wales to boosting public spending on the National Health Service and education. For once, the Tories have stolen Labour clothes rather than the other way around.
In fact, Cameron has gone out of his way to treat the bloated NHS with respect, saying he has come to appreciate its doctors and nurses through the long hours he has spent in hospitals with his disabled four-year-old son. Like Blair, Cameron seems to empathise with people - qualities that are more important to voters than specific policies. He’s in favour of all sorts of things that appeal to young suburban voters, including boosting the numbers of women and Black Tory members of Parliament, organic gardening, action on climate change and increasing aid to Africa.
Indeed Labour politicians are undoubtedly wondering if the ageing Brown, 54, remains the best choice against the magnetic Cameron. TV is less kind to Brown, more of a traditional backroom politician, than to either Blair or Cameron. Two factors will probably determine whether Cameron’s Tories will win the next election and the outcome squares solely in the hands of the Labour Government. Brown’s reputation has taken something of a knock over the last year as the British economy, for whose success he has claimed credit as Chancellor of the Exchequer, has slowed. If the economic situation worsens, Brown's colleagues may begin looking around for an alternative Labour leadership candidate. Labour internal election process is rather long-winded and it is unlikely the party will choose someone with less public profile than Brown. So, assuming he is elected, Brown will already be tainted. The timing of Blair's departure is also going to be important. The sooner he leaves, the better Brown's chances are of succeeding him.
My hunch is that Blair will go early in 2007 rather than hanging on until late next year or even 2008. This is because it makes sense for a new prime minister to have a good two years in charge before polling day, in order to establish familiarity with the voters but not enough to start looking off colour. It is my view that Blair will probably step down in spring 2007, but there is every opportunity of this happening sooner, perhaps after a poor Labour performance in local elections on May 4.
If Brown does become leader would he be different as prime minister? It’s true that he has deeper roots in Labour politics than Blair; he was active in the more left-wing Scottish Labour party years before Blair became a member south of the border. The invention of “New Labour” was a joint Brown-Blair project. It was Brown who embraced the capitalist private finance initiative so hated by trade unions and left-wingers. And he abandoned “tax and spend” policy which they also favour. Brown has also resisted calls for big increases in pensions. But, in a genuine effort to tackle poverty, he has introduced tax credits for poor families.
He has said and done nothing to indicate that he would take a different approach to Blair's pro-US foreign policy. There have been faint indications that he might be interested in reviving a process of constitutional reform like the proportional representation so beloved of the Lib Dems. But otherwise everything suggests a Brown premiership will mean Blairite business as usual. That could be a major handicap for him at a time when the public are yearning for change.
One thing is for sure. ‘Davey’ Cameron and his re-branded caring, compassionate Conservatives are looking to bridge the gap between themselves and ordinary working class voters and to appeal to women, Black people and pensioners. Moreover, they are appearing united behind their leader and seem to want to stick with him even past the next election. Whereas cracks are appearing for the first time in Blair's Labour Party, most notably on policies like Iraq war, ID cards, education and terrorism.
If 'Camelot' Cameron can retains his magic touch for the next couple of years he'll do his parity’s chances of winning back 10 Downing Street a power of good.