After a fortnight of remorseless battering, Tory MPs at last have a spring in their step. Gordon Brown’s lacklustre performance at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday proved to them that the new Prime Minister is far from infallible. The look on the faces of Labour MPs said it all. One Tory MP walked out of the chamber clenching his fist, contorting his face and shouting “Game on”!
On their own, one dodgy performance by Gordon Brown and one good performance by David Cameron mean nothing, but perception is everything in politics, and if these performances are repeated in the three remaining PMQs before the summer recess Gordon Brown’s honeymoon will be over almost before it has begun.
Brown had an impressive debut week as Prime Minister. Inevitably it was a week of contrasts with his predecessor, and until PMQs he had hit the right note, both in his response to the terror attacks and his smooth reshuffle. It wasn’t until his statement on constitutional issues that the wheels started to come off, and all because Brown reverted to type.
Forget all the consensual, government of all the talents guff which he has been spouting. Leopards do not change their spots and politicians who try to be something they patently are not get found out. David Cameron’s strategy of sitting on the sidelines, watching with wry amusement as the New Gordon Brown was marketed to the nation, was entirely right. But now he has drawn blood, the Tory leader should go in for the kill.
Just as Brown is considered a control freak, Cameron is seen to be policy-lite. In fact, it is Cameron’s biggest public relations failure that he has allowed this perception to fester. If you look across the whole gamut of policy there is actually a raft of policies which Cameron himself has announced. Before the summer recess he should publish a summary of them.
These policies include the setting up of a Pensions Lifeboat fund, a three pence reduction in business taxes, the abolition of stamp duty on shares, no more closures of special schools, a bill on NHS independence, abolishing many NHS targets, reducing carbon emissions, the abolition of ID cards, the introduction of a border police force, a Bill of Rights, scrapping the council tax revaluation, abolishing regional assembles, a referendum on the new EU treaty… I could go on – at length – but you get the picture.
Next week Iain Duncan Smith’s Social Justice policy commission will publish its 250,000 word report and the following week David Cameron will publish the Globalisation Commission report while on a trip to Rwanda, organised by Shadow International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, on which forty Tory MPs, candidates and officials will work on twenty ‘social responsibility projects’ throughout the country. This will be followed up by a London launch, where Bob Geldof is expected to appear.
The Public Services, Economic Competitiveness, Security and Environment Commissions will all report by the middle of September. Hundreds of people have been involved in working on these policy groups and they are producing work of real substance.
The contrast with the way Gordon Brown announces policy is clear. He gets away with a nod and a wink about what he is thinking of doing and regularly indulges in policy kite flying, while the Tories quietly beaver away. Creating policy should indeed be a serious matter and while the Conservatives may have suffered in the short term for developing policy behind the scenes, they may reap the rewards for it in the longer term.
Over the summer, the findings of all the policy commissions will be analysed by Oliver Letwin’s team, with the party then having the opportunity to debate them at the Party Conference. A website will be created containing all the policy recommendations and a forum to allow party supporters to debate the findings. In November final decisions will be made on which policies will form the basis of a full manifesto.
An interesting, but little commented on, aspect of David Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet reshuffle was the appointments of William Hague and Francis Maude to roles in policy development. Maude’s ‘enforcer’ role is an important one, for it is he who will develop a strategy for implementing policy when in government. Once David Cameron has cherrypicked the policy group recommendations it will be Francis Maude’s job to ensure that the Shadow Cabinet gets to grips with them quickly.
It’s clear that following David Cameron’s reshuffle, he is gearing up for an election. Party HQ has clearly been put on a war footing. Caroline Spelman’s appointment shows that the role of party chairman will become more political and less organisational. This is balanced by the return of two ex party officials, Stephen Gilbert and Gavin Barwell. Their re-emergence will be welcomed by party agents and campaigners in the country. They will continue to plan the Target seats campaign with Lord Ashcroft, whose remit has also been widened to focus on building a campaigning organisation on the ground.
Normal politics won’t resume until after the party conferences. By then we will have a much better idea of the policy and election battleground.