Cameron is natural successor to Mr Blair

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Emphasising the cosmetic, and leaving much of the heavy policy stuff for another day, David Cameron has seen his party soar in the polls. His first six months as Tory leader are considered by political editor CHRISFISHER.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

David Cameron is entitled to think “so far, so good” today as he marks the completion of his first six months as Tory leader.

In that time he has done much to change the image of his party. And in doing that he has seen its electoral prospects greatly improved.

A poll in yesterday's Sun not only gave the Conservatives a 10 point lead over Labour but also put them above the 40pc level. It indicated that if there were an immediate general election, 41pc of voters would back the Tories, 31pc Labour and 18pc the Liberal Democrats.

Those figures would give the Tories an overall Commons majority of more than 40. And if they were evenly reflected in every constituency - which of course wouldn't happen - the Tories would gain Norwich North, North Norfolk, Yarmouth and Waveney.

A simple answer to this is that there won't be a general election this week, this month or even this year. It is only one year and one month since the last one, which gave Labour a Commons majority of over 60. This is surely big enough to endure for a full five-year parliament, if Tony Blair's successor in No 10 decides that is his best option. So the next election may not happen until June 2010.

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The British political scene is liable to have been transformed long before then. It is hard to see Mr Blair lasting as prime minister beyond the Labour conference of 2007. By that time, if not sooner, the Lib Dems could also be choosing a new leader. I doubt very much that the leadership line-up at the next election will consist of Mr Cameron, Gordon Brown and Sir Menzies Campbell. It is possible, indeed, that of those three, Mr Cameron will be the only one at the helm of his party.

The most absorbing feature of the polling evidence of recent weeks is that the poll lead opened up by Mr Cameron would not be reversed if the “lame duck” incumbent at No 10 were replaced by the chancellor of the exchequer. Labour is starting to realise that it is staring into an abyss. Just about everything that could have gone wrong for the government of late has done so. Cock-up has followed cock-up. And this has added to the already strong pressure on Mr Blair to set a date for his departure or at least give a very clear steer.

The calls for that have assumed, however, that Labour would get a substantial and lasting lift if Mr Brown were to move into No 10. But if that isn't going to happen - and the polls suggest it isn't - the governing party is left holding a very nasty can of worms. The opportunities for Mr Cameron to stir it up are numerous.

What an excellent position for him to be in. He could not reasonably have wished for more when he was declared his party's leader on December 6 last year. He inherited the running of a party that had lost three consecutive general elections - two of then by large landslides - and which since John Major's defeat in 1997 had had three leaders who had failed to restore it to its traditional position on the top perch. With the economy still looking broadly good, how could he possible stop a Brown-led Labour Party steamrollering to a fourth victory?

The turn-round plainly owes a lot to the wheels and much else falling off the Labour vehicle. Mr Cameron must have struggled to believe his luck as Blair & Co responded to his victory by apparently doing their utmost to present an image of themselves that combines strong suggestions of sleaze with evidence of almost incomprehensible depths of incompetence.

You arguably don't need to do much as Tory leader when John Prescott's trousers are down round his ankles and the Home Office is giving the impression that it couldn't even organise a few drinks in a brewery. And Mr Cameron's detractors - and he has them in substantial numbers even inside his own party, notwithstanding its opinion poll leads - would make the very point that he actually has done hardly anything of great substance.

He has been very busy making the Tories look green, and getting them not to bang on and on about the subjects - including immigration/

asylum, crime and the European Union - that had been preoccupying them for so long. But the emphasis in his pronouncements on environ-mental issues, as on other matters, has been presentational.

The same feature has been to the fore in his decision to require Tory associations in target seats to select parliamentary candidates from an “A-list” about 120-strong in which half the people are women and 10pc from ethnic minorities. Despite it, the association in Bromley, south east London, has just chosen a white, male barrister in his late-50s as its candidate for the by-election that will soon be held.

Irritation in the ranks with Mr Cameron's style, and his devotion to that very factor, was brought in to the public domain when Lincolnshire Fens MP John Hayes complained about the influence being exerted by “the pseuds and poseurs of London's chichi set”. But as long as the Tories stay ahead in the polls, many backwoodsmen from the shires will grit their teeth and tolerate the attitudes and priorities of the Notting Hill set.

In London and the south, but not yet the midlands or the north, Mr Cameron has removed the stigma that became attached to voting Tory. In some respects he is the natural successor to Mr Blair. New Tory, New Blair (without all the aspects of the original that have turned sour). On the evidence so far, it could be a winning formula.