'Blair heir' faces up to new reality

The way to regain power was to be more like Tony Blair, David Cameron told the Tories two years ago. To many of them, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The way to regain power was to be more like Tony Blair, David Cameron told the Tories two years ago. To many of them, it seemed like a good idea at the time. But as the party returns to Blackpool, the doubts and pressures are increasing, says political editor Chris Fisher

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David Cameron has very fond memories of Blackpool. It was a speech there, at the Tories' annual conference in 2005, that set him up to become his party's leader.

My immediate reaction to his speech was that it was rather good but no better than that. And I thought that the speech by his leadership rival David Davis was satisfactory and no worse. But I quickly realised that some of my journalistic colleagues had got it firmly into their heads that Mr Cameron had just given a master class in golden oratory and that Mr Davis had completely bombed.

I was rather bewildered - but no more so than Iain Dale, Mr Davis's campaign manager. It seemed to him that the special event featuring speeches by the party leadership contenders had gone rather well for his man. He was therefore very surprised and not a little angered to discover a rapidly developing consensus in the press room that it had actually been a great triumph for Mr Cameron.

How does one account for this? It seemed to me at the time - and the suspicion has never really gone way - that some powerful media people with Conservative convictions or leanings had decided that Mr Cameron's speech would be brilliant, regardless of its actual quality, because they had been persuaded that the only hope of getting the Tories out of the wilderness in opposition was to beat Tony Blair at his own game.

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Having lost power in 1997, the party had tried to regain it in 2001 with a tough agenda focusing on traditionally favourite Tory issues - including asylum/immigration, crime and Europe. The outcome was another Blair landslide.

A similar platform was put forward in 2005 under the leadership of the abrasive Michael Howard. But once again, and despite all the controversy surrounding the Iraq war, Mr Blair won - this time with only a substantial majority rather than a massive one. If the Tories couldn't beat him in such circumstances, how could they ever do so? By being much more like him perhaps. By ceasing - in the words of Theresa May - to be “the nasty party” and becoming socially inclusive and green. And there was a man who wanted to be like Mr Blair (minus, of course, the less attractive features) - even though he had been the main writer of the Conservatives' 2005 election manifesto. Step forward Mr Cameron.

On the eve of his conference speech in 2005 he was the guest of the Daily Telegraph at a dinner in the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool at which he declared: “I am the heir to Blair.” George Osborne, now the shadow chancellor, was also present. And in supporting Mr Cameron's comment, he said: “We have nothing to be ashamed of in saying it.”

Mr Cameron was advised that he shouldn't repeat his observation outside the room. He wanted, however, to spread the word that as Conservative leader he would be a blue Blair. And since getting the job he has carried on with that theme.

Parts of this message were hard for Conservative traditionalists to swallow, but that process was aided by the unaccustomed experience of a long, unbroken period in opposition and by the opinion poll lead that he established. Many in his party took an attitude of: “If this is what it takes to get us back into power, we'll do it.”

There is a big difference between that and being happy, and there was always a danger that true feelings would start to be expressed if the poll lead disappeared. That has happened since Gordon Brown became prime minister. He is currently experiencing a honeymoon exceeding the worst expectations and fears of the Conservatives. And Mr Cameron will set off for Blackpool knowing that he could find it a much less congenial place than two years ago.

The knives are out, and Lord Tebbit has just been bold and bitter enough to stick them in his party leader's chest rather than his back. Judging by the experience of the past 15 years, there could be a lot more feuding both before and after the party conference opens on Sunday. Knowledge that a general election may be imminent should concentrate minds and secure a high degree of self-discipline, but I wouldn't count on it.

A point Lord Tebbit has emphasised is that in contrast to Mr Cameron's 'heir to Blair' aspiration, Mr Brown has been trying to portray himself as the heir to Baroness Thatcher. No prizes for guessing which one of the former prime ministers the ex-Tory chairman regards as the better model.

A big underlying question in this is whether Mr Cameron made a great strategic error in setting out to imitate Mr Blair. When he did so, Mr Blair had just won his third election. But by then it was already clear that the British electorate had seriously fallen out of love with him. It had stuck with him because the alternatives seemed worse, but it wanted someone else.

It seemed unlikely that Mr Brown could be the man it was looking for. It did so even when he got the keys to No 10. But since then his supposed flaws appear to have become attributes. After flash Tony, there is a yearning for solid, allegedly non-spinning, Gordon.

Mr Cameron may therefore have decked himself out in a new outfit just as it was going out of fashion and jumped on a bandwagon just as the wheels were falling off.

Given this background, Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson seemed remarkably buoyant when I spoke to him about the conference.

The Conservatives were well prepared for an early election, he said, and though recent poll findings had created pressure, there was no “panicking”.

“David Cameron has to look good, sound good and be inspirational. And he knows that”, he said. “He is a pretty steely individual. He is not a man who panics. He is good under fire.”

Another leading Norfolk Tory - who asked to speak anonymously - insisted that morale was good despite the polls and Lord Tebbit's apparent preference for the prime minister over Mr Cameron. “We are ready for an election, and we would like to have a bash”, he said.

But will there be an election in November? “I don't know,” said Mr Simpson when I put that question to him. So I modified it. Would he press the button now, or very soon, if he were Mr Brown? “I don't think I would, on balance. The risk is still too great”, he said.

At the very least, he continued, Mr Brown would want a Commons majority as big as the present one of 66, because he would otherwise be told that he had failed to secure a strong personal mandate. And partly because of boundary changes favourable to the Conservatives, that will not be easily achieved. But there were now dangers for Mr Brown, he continued, in not going to the country. “If there is no election, he will have been seen to blink”, he said.

So why has Mr Brown been so successful in winning support since he became PM? “By not being Blair”, replied Mr Simpson. And that, in a perverse way, takes us back to the stall Mr Cameron set out in Blackpool in 2005 and to the Tories' decision to invest heavily in it.