Cameron faces crucial test

NEXT month's local elections will deliver a verdict on whether David Cameron has been able to lift the fortunes of the Conservatives as they contemplate how to re-engage with mainstream Britain.

NEXT month's local elections will deliver a verdict on whether David Cameron has been able to lift the fortunes of the Conservatives as they contemplate how to re-engage with mainstream Britain.

His “no turning back” message to Tory activists in Manchester at the party's spring forum gave force to his argument that the Tories have to change if they are to have any hope of either forcing a hung parliament or winning an overall majority at the next election.

“Now is not the time to put our foot on the brake. Now is the time to press on the accelerator,” said the Tory leader. “I know some of you think we've had quite enough change for the time being. I have read the letters, asking me to slow down.

“But I have to tell you all this: Britain cannot wait while we take it easy. We have a massive mountain to climb if we're to win the next election.

“If we falter, then Labour wins again. And that means not another two or three years of Labour government. It means another eight or nine years.”

Although older Conservatives are bemused at all this talk of change, they should recall have they enthusiastically backed Margaret Thatcher's revolution, when she turned the One Nation party of Disraeli, Baldwin, Churchill, Eden, and Macmillan into the “grab all you can” brigade.

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Cameron is trying to make his party pitch for that centre ground. His emphasis on the environment - references to which in his Manchester speech significantly got the loudest applause - is all part of the strategy.

Cameron's task is not easy. This week, his position in northern England was dealt a huge blow when Two Tory councillors in Preston dramatically defected to the Liberal Democrats.

To coincide with the spring forum, Nicky Morgan - the wife of former Ipswich Tory chairman Jonathan Morgan and a leading Conservative in her own right - co-authored a book with the alluring title Conservative Revival*.

This new generation younger Tories agree with Cameron - the Tories must forget all about Thatcherism with a happy-clappy revivalism which would do American evangelists proud.

However, Tory tambourines have long since ceased to wave in our great conurbations. Was it really only 22 years' ago that, under Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives won seats in Birmingham, Bradford, Darlington, Manchester, Nottingham, Stockport, Leicester, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne?

The authors rather blandly - too blandly to my mind - ascribe the Tory Party's banishment from the cities to “a problem with its brand,” defined as the public's instinctive feel for a political party - its policies, values, beliefs, motivation, the type of people at the top, and in whose interests they will govern.

The use of the word brand shows that younger Tories are still too much in awe of New Labour, so much so that they want to ape its image.

There is scant acknowledgement in the book that Conservative polices from the first confrontation with the miners until 1997 - via the ill fated poll tax, infighting over the Maastrict Treaty, negative equity and Black Wednesday - alienated large sections of the electorate. On top of this, the Tories were seen as self-seeking graspers who'd do anything to be bunged a brown paper envelope.

When money scandals weren't hitting the headlines, tawdry sexual activities seemed to be all the vogue, and how the public loved reading about the downfall of the toffs. Spanking rent boys, a breath control experiment which went tragically wrong, a Cabinet minister having extra marital sex in a football strip, and kiss-and-tell romps and affairs sold to the Sunday tabloids for a fair few bucks, the Conservatives seemed to epitomise all that was gross in corruptible power.

For these excesses and policy failures, the Tories were humiliated in 1997 and 2001, and only did marginally better in 2005. But all this is naively brushed aside by authors who insist: “The problems encountered by the Conservative Party since the 1990s have largely been due to poor brand management - the failure to present a clear, consistent and relevant image of what they stand for.”

On the contrary, images of what they stood for appeared too often in the media!

And what the brains at Conservative Central Office could not understand was that offering voters education and health vouchers so they could hike themselves and their children from school to school, from hospital to hospital, demanding admission was the very opposite of the public's desire for good schools everywhere and top notch health care, free to all at the point of delivery.

It's not that the public did not understand Tory policies - they understood them only too well and said “no way”.

After nine years in opposition, the Conservatives are clearly determined that the time to win again has come. That may be self-evident - after all, what's the point of being in politics if you don't want to win, and after rejecting Kenneth Clarke three times and, more inexplicably Michael Portillo, they at long last have a leader who has the charisma to win the next General Election.

Coupled with the mounting toll of sleaze emanating from the Labour Party, the Tories do have a genuine chance of doing well at the next election, but until they win again in the cities, the north, Scotland, and urban Wales, they'll be hard pressed to gain an overall majority.

Glibly banging on about brand may go down well at supper parties in Notting Hall and weekends in north Norfolk and Tuscany, but it won't impress the voters of Tyneside. And I'm not sure that a 20-something would be MP knocking on the doors of council houses in Byker spouting his or her “vision for a compassionate society” or a “vision for a land with opportunity for all” is going to have the voters flocking to the polling booths to put a cross against the Tory.

*Conservative Revival: Blueprint for a Better Britain, published by Politico's in association with The Bow Group, price £9.99

DURING the Commonwealth Games, where the home nations sent four teams, England's gold medallists stood to attention to Land of Hope and Glory rather than the national anthem, the reason being that God Save the Queen is reserved for events featuring Great Britain teams.

There is now pressure for Land of Hope and Glory to be sung before England's soccer matches - the fans have long since ditched the carry the Union Jack in favour of the flag of St George.

I just wonder whether the fans will sing lustily the version penned, if memory serves me, by Iain Macleod and Quintin Hogg:

“Land of Hope and Glory.

Mother of the Free.

Keep on voting Tory,

Until eternity!”

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