Can David Cameron win the next general election?

The arrival of David Cameron as Tory leader has significantly altered the political landscape in a sense that was not the case with the last three post-Major Tory leaders. This is because Cameron has clearly signified that the Tory party is moving leftwards from their previous position to one much closer to that of the current Labour Government. 

Although this may be pleasing for Labour it does not guarantee that Labour will win again in 2009. Indeed, the current situation is not unlike that in 1995, when the Tories were in Government. If the choice in 2009 is between two parties offering broadly the same thing it will be between a battle-scarred government led by an ageing Brown contrasted to a fresh, if largely untried team (but so were New Labour) led by a vigorous and youthful Cameron. Moreover, the continuation of Blairite policy between now and then may result in growing fragmentation and rebellion among Labour MPs, as the period since the election has suggested. Such public division will be as electorally damaging as it was then for the Tories.

The Tory move to the centre is not without its difficulties, indeed, right-wing votes could go to UKIP, the BNP, or just nowhere. Provided that on Europe Cameron maintains a sceptical stance the vast majority of the Tory right will remain loyal, particularly if victory appears a possibility. MPs and candidates 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 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.

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 defected their vote to other parties or have stopped voting. Indeed, many mainly leftish middle class voters were alienated over Iraq, and became attracted to the Lib Dems more radical policies over taxation and student fees and wanting to ensure that Labour’s majority last year was reduced without the Tories winning.

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, health and education are and whether his differences with Blair are about his succession or policy? But it seems reasonable to assume that because of his general outlook and concerns, 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.

Cameron may be the most inexperienced politician to win a party leadership post in British history. But in the current circumstances Cameron's lack of a track record has its advantages. Firstly, he wasn’t a part of the Tories’ unpopular governments in the early 1990s, so he can’t be blamed for what happened then. Secondly, he also looks like the future by virtue of age alone. He emphasised this point to Blair during his first Prime Ministers Questions by claiming: “You were the future once”. 

Cameron’s selection represents a sharp change in course by the Tories, who have been unceremoniously thrashed in three straight elections. The Tories' strategy under their last 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.

In fact, Cameron has gone out of his way to treat the NHS as sacrosanct, saying he has come to appreciate its doctors and nurses through the long hours he has spent in the services' facilities with his disabled four-year-old son.

Like Blair, Cameron is charismatic and seems to empathise with people - qualities that are more important to voters than specific policies. He’s in favor of all sorts of things that appeal to young suburban voters, including boosting the numbers of female Tory members of Parliament, organic gardening, 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 is 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, has slowed. If the economic situation worsens, Brown's colleagues may begin looking around for an alternative. The Labour party election process is rather long-winded, and it is unlikely the party will choose someone with less public notoriety than Brown. The timing of Blair's departure is also going to be important. The sooner he leaves, the better Brown's chances are.

My hunch is that Blair will go early in 2007 rather than hanging on until late 2007 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 jaded. 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 in May.

If Brown does become leader would he be a different prime minister? Brown does have deeper roots in Labour politics than Blair; he was active in Scottish Labour politics years before Blair joined the party. The invention of “New Labour,” was a joint Brown-Blair effort. It was Brown who embraced the private finance initiative, Brown who abandoned “tax and spend,” Brown who resisted calls for big increases in pensions. He has said and done nothing to indicate that he would take a different approach to foreign policy. There have been faint indications that he might be interested in reviving the process of constitutional reform, but otherwise everything suggests a Brown premiership will mean business as usual. But is the same again really what the public wants?

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, appeal to women and pensioners. Moreover, they are appearing united behind their leader and seem to want to stick with him even past the next general election. Whereas cracks are appearing to surface in the Labour Party, most notably over areas of policy encompassing ID cards, education and terrorism the Conservatives seem to be on the ascendancy - as recent opinion polls show.

Under Cameron, will the Tories avoid another defeat in the next election?  It is, of course, too soon to tell. But if Cameron keeps his magic touch he'll certainly cause complications for Labour.