Confident Cameron's challenge to Brown

The end of the Tory conference and the political conference season. Quite possibly the very end of party conferences in Blackpool. And maybe - repeat, maybe - an end to the prospect of a general election next month.

The end of the Tory conference and the political conference season. Quite possibly the very end of party conferences in Blackpool. And maybe - repeat, maybe - an end to the prospect of a general election next month.

William Hague fired off the comment yesterday that it would now be cowardly of Gordon Brown not to call an election. And David Cameron brought his speech to a conclusion by stating: “Mr Brown, What's it going to be? Why don't you go ahead and call that election?” But the Tory leader's main aim this week was surely to stop one.

In other words, his principal purpose was to achieve such a narrowing of the poll gap between his party and Labour as to make an election call by the prime minister a reckless and almost ridiculous gamble.

A mass of polling evidence over the next couple of days will strongly indicate the extent to which he and his party have succeeded in such an objective.

My firm impression is that their conference has gone well for them. They have launched some popular tax initiatives. They have avoided in-fighting and back-stabbing. And they managed to look and sound upbeat.

If, after this, the polls still show them to be 8-10pc behind Labour, they might as well run up the white flag and agree to Mr Brown remaining PM for the next four years without the cost and fuss of a general election.

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But what if - and I shall be surprised if this doesn't prove to be the case - they have made significant inroads into the Labour lead? What if it appears to have been cut back to 5pc or less? Mr Brown has waited many years to become the master of No 10 and is noted for a dour and cautious approach to politics and life. Would he really be willing to risk everything on a modest and possibly fragile poll lead when he has a substantial Commons majority and an election doesn't need to be called before the spring of 2010? Doing that would be a final and total abandonment of his old love Prudence.

As Mr Cameron prepared for his speech yesterday, it no doubt crossed his mind that it could be his last conference address as Tory leader. If there is to be a November 1 election, his own future will be very much on the line. In the event of a Conservative defeat, a great deal would depend on the scale of it. If there were a Brown landslide, Mr Cameron would almost certainly be sacrificed in a desire to return to traditional Tory values. If, on the other hand, the Labour majority were significantly cut, he would undoubtedly be left to complete the job the next time. But what if a new Labour majority were about the same as the current one of 66, or a bit higher, and there were no Conservative progress?

Mr Cameron gave no impression of concern yesterday that he might be heading for the scaffold. On the contrary, he spoke once more of his being an optimist, and he seemed genuinely confident. But that cannot really extend, can it, to belief that he could actually win a Commons majority in an election held next month?

The electoral arithmetic is still stacked heavily in favour of Labour. The Tories need a big swing of just under 7pc since the last general election just to win a Commons majority of one. That would require voting shares in the election of something akin to 43pc for them and 32pc for Labour. That is a long, long way from what the opinion polls have been saying of late (roughly 40pc for Labour and 32pc for the Conservatives).

On the other hand, a swing of just 1pc would suffice to remove Labour's Commons majority. Figures of 33pc for the Conservatives and 34pc for Labour - compared with 32 and 35 at the last election - would just about be enough to secure a hung parliament. Even that is some distance from what the opinion polls have been saying, but it is not unattainable. And a hung parliament would be a disaster for Mr Brown. How on earth had he got into such a predicament, through a totally avoidable election, it would asked, just a few months after inheriting a good Commons majority? He would be the one facing a quick sacking or resignation.

Mr Cameron spoke 'off-the-cuff' yesterday. Though there was no script, much of the content had presumably been thoroughly rehearsed in his mind. But this approach underlined that it was a speech of broad themes and mood music rather than detailed policy commitments.

He carried it off well, I thought. The delivery was excellent, and it was a thoroughly elegant modern political speech. But until the electoral stuff at the end it was lacking a strong focus and theme. Up to that point it was a story without an intro.

He cannot charge policy-lite towards the Brown heavy artillery in a general election campaign and get away with it.

The prime minister would be armed to the teeth with complex initiatives and detailed questions about Tory policies, and the Conservatives must be careful to avoid a mirror image of the 1992 campaign when Labour's tax plans were shot to bits. I found Mr Cameron's inability to tell me earlier this week whether he is for or against higher fuel duty rather ominous.

There could be much relief on both sides of the Labour-Tory divide if Mr Brown decides to call the whole thing off.