Cameron forces Ming U-turn

DAVID Cameron, who this week celebrated his first 100 days in charge of the Conservatives, has lifted his party's fortunes beyond anything he could have hoped for and has spread panic among Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties.

By Graham Dines

DAVID Cameron, who this week celebrated his first 100 days in charge of the Conservatives, has lifted his party's fortunes beyond anything he could have hoped for and has spread panic among Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties.

Mr Cameron has managed to push up his party's public approval rating by saying very little of substance on any subject other than a few headline grabbing sound bites.

But it's worked. The Tory Party's success in last month's local elections, notably London, brought about a major Cabinet reshuffle as Tony Blair tried to refresh his Government just 12 months after leading the party to its third General Election victory in a row.

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Now the Liberal Democrats have dumped a policy, which every political analyst and commentator told them was a disaster - increasing the higher rate of income tax. The plan - plus a commitment to replace council tax with a local income tax - is blamed for the Lib Dems' failure to make any headway in the south of England at the General Election.

Sir Menzies Campbell has been in charge of his party for nearly 100 days - and the Lib Dems have been drifting hopelessly. Yesterday he tried to capture public attention by signalling his intention to abolish the 10p tax rate and lower the 22p rate to 20p.

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To pay for this, the Lib Dems would slap on a massive hike in environmental taxes such as a £2,000 vehicle excise duty on the most polluting cars.

Sir Menzies told an audience of party supporters: “I want to redefine our approach to tax to reflect the growing sense in many low income and middle-class households that taxes are unfair, over-complicated and penalise hard work.

“My aim is to cut the burden of direct taxes on the low paid and middle Britain and pay for it by raising taxes on those who pollute the environment and the very wealthy. We are the one major party that takes the environment seriously and that does mean that environmental taxes will rise.”

He is clearly positioning himself to try to take on the Tories on taxation - but slapping a £2,000 vehicle excise charge on cars mostly driven by rural dwellers smacks of a policy which has been ill prepared.

Sir Menzies is also copying the Tories in seeking more woman and ethnic minority candidates selected - in the East of England, its three MPs are white men while both the Tories and Labour in Essex have a female MP and the Tories have a minority ethnic MP in Cambridgeshire.

Meanwhile Mr Cameron has declared his commitment to equality and redistributive taxation in an interview which continues his drive to shake off traditional Tory stereotypes. He told the left-wing New Statesman magazine that “the war is over” between his party and public-sector workers. “What is required is . . . actually trusting the professionals . . . and localising and devolving public services. The good thing about it is it's profoundly Conservative.

“The Conservative Party under my leadership is going to be genuinely committed to trusting public servants . . . so we can deliver what we really want, which is a quality of service for everyone and equality of service for everyone.”

CONGRATULATIONS to my old friend Bob Neill, who was picked by the Tories to fight the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election.

And here I declare an interest - I have known Bob for 10 years and, as leader of the party's London Assembly group, he is the employer of my daughter-in-law, who is his personal assistant.

Choosing Bob has blown a giant hole in Mr Cameron's attempts to force winnable seats to endorse the so-called “beautiful people” who've been put on the central list. The final Bromley shortlist of three contained two A-listers - Julia Manning and Euro MP Syed Kamall - but they were both rejected in favour of Bob, who represents the borough on the London Assembly.

He is now firm favourite to replace Eric Forth - who died suddenly of cancer last month - in Parliament at the June 29 by-election. The 2005 General Election majority for the Conservatives was 13,342.

A barrister specialising in large-scale corporate fraud who has at times practiced at Ipswich Crown Court, he was a councillor in the east London borough of Havering for 16 years before being elected to the Assembly in 2000.

He was re-elected for a second term as the GLA Member for Bexley and Bromley in June 2004 and also appointed group leader and is a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority.

Tory vice-chairman Bernard Jenkin, MP for Essex North and in charge of finding seats for the “beautiful people” including ex-Coronation Street star Adam Rickitt and author Louise Bagshawe, put a brave face on Bromley's rejection of Cameron's iconic list. “We are absolutely delighted that Bob has been selected. He is the natural successor to Eric Forth with his unrivalled experience and local knowledge.”

TWO more Dines awards for achievement: Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has joined England football fans across the country by flying the flag of St George from her ministerial limousine. Asked about the flags, Ms Jowell, whose department is responsible for sport, responded: “There's only one England!”

And her junior minister David Lammy joins the growing list of Labour politicians singing the praises of Colchester's proposed Visual Arts Facility, rebuking the town's MP Bob Russell for failing to see the regeneration opportunities it will engender in one of the least attractive part of Britain's oldest recorded town.

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