Are the Tories rattled by Election Fever?

What a difference a leader makes! Just over two months ago the Tories, under their bright, newish young leader, still seemed a strong prospect. Yes, they'd had a wobble over grammar schools, but they were in better fettle than Labour and David Cameron seemed a far more positive bet than tarnished war leader Tony Blair. Even better, Blair's inevitable successor was an unsmiling Scot who seemed utterly ill suited to modern media politics. Well, I guess everyone gets to be wrong a few times, but there was hardly a single Tory adviser who could have predicted the Brown 'bounce' that has so wrong-footed them over the summer.

Gordon Brown is undoubtedly enjoying bating the Tories with that potent power of an incumbent Prime Minister - the power to hold an election when he chooses. The enjoyment will only be the greater for the remarkable reputation Brown has managed to acquire as PM. Simply by a skilfull performance as the anti-Blair, he has won plaudits and popularity that have made David Cameron look, well, rather last year. Then there's today's news about Brown's acquisition of a couple of Tory backbenchers, and one Lib Dem, as government advisers. He really does look like the experienced leader of a bipartisan government of all the talents.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have both sought to put the best possible gloss on their MPs' new roles, but it sounds a bit like justifying a decision the individuals concerned had already determined to make. Patrick Mercer is a distinctly odd choice for Brown as security adviser, and it must be a sign of his annoyance with Dave that he bothered to take the role at all. John Bercow is an altogether more thoughtful MP, and, given his own political journey from right-wing student gauleiter to left-ish Tory guru, it is less surprising that he has accepted Brown's blandishments. But the overall effect is what matters for the cunning PM - he has once again set the cat among the Tory pigeons - adding a quick kick at some Lib Dem ones for good measure - and shown that he remains in full command of the political agenda.

So what are Cameron's chances? I can't see much money being laid on him becoming Prime Minister next year at present, but politics is nothing if not fickle. Gordon Brown, for all his current mischief making, is unlikely to forego his famed caution for a snap election this year, and the longer he remains in office the less entrenched his poll lead is likely to become. David Cameron, meanwhile, is starting to firm up his political message. Having significantly altered the perception of the Tory party over the past year or two, he has now started looking towards distinctive Tory policies on tax and law and order to put distance between himself and Brown. His policy building needs to be carefully undertaken, however, given that his predecessors are haunted by the fact that they too tried to take the Tory party back to the centre before surrendering it to its right-wing. Cameron hasn't done that yet, but one of Brown's calculations must be that he might be able to panic Cameron back into the thrice-losing Tory right-wing laager.

And so, as a new academic year dawns, with Parliament still a month away from its return, the political agenda is already hotting up and proving, as ever, that politics is the most unpredictable of activities.


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