Lesson for Brown from Tory rebels

Prior to Tony Blair's announcement that he was giving up the Labour leadership and with it the job of Prime Minister, the opinion polls showed his party languishing up to 10 points behind the Tories.

Prior to Tony Blair's announcement that he was giving up the Labour leadership and with it the job of Prime Minister, the opinion polls showed his party languishing up to 10 points behind the Tories.

In the three weeks since then, the gap has closed to around four points - suggesting that the voters might just be rather relieved to be seeing the back of him.

Yet if the comments coming from the Tory camp this week are anything to go by, they continue to believe that Mr Blair is the greatest vote-winner since, well, Margaret Thatcher.

Are they right to think that the public really wants more Blairism under another guise? Or is their desire to be seen as the true "heirs to Blair" a mistake that could condemn the Tories to another five years in the wilderness?

This, to my mind, is the key strategic decision confronting leader David Cameron and his new director of communications, Andy Coulson, whom hacks have wasted no time this week in dubbing "The Tory Alastair Campbell".

In a few weeks' time, Gordon Brown will take over as Prime Minister. But on current evidence, the Tories still have no clear plan of attack on how they will tackle him.

Instinctively, they want to portray the Chancellor as a closet Leftie who will shift Labour back towards a "core vote" strategy leaving them free to colonise Mr Blair's old middle-ground.

Indeed, according to shadow chancellor George Osborne, this has already happened.

"The fact that Gordon Brown has abandoned the centre ground of public service reform to the Conservative Party is a great opportunity for us," he said this week.

Except, of course, that Mr Brown has so far done no such thing, and on current form, is extremely unlikely to do so - at least until he has won his own democratic mandate at a general election.

Mr Brown's own strategists are determined to present his premiership as "New Labour Plus" - New Labour with added values if you like - as opposed to "New Labour Minus".

In part, Mr Osborne's comments were a reflection not on anything that Mr Brown has said, but on the noises coming from those who are seeking to be his deputy.

It followed Tuesday night's televised debate in which the six contenders appeared to be falling over themselves to ingratiate themselves with the party's traditional grassroots supporters.

Last week, I wrote that the backbench contender Jon Cruddas had been setting the policy agenda in the contest thus far by focusing attention on some of Labour's "forgotten issues," such as social housing.

Since then, however, the other contenders have responded by appearing to become engaged in a sort of policy free-for-all.

So we had the remarkable spectacle of Harriet Harman saying the Government should apologise for the Iraq War, Hilary Benn calling for more redistribution of wealth, Peter Hain repeating his attacks on city fat cats, and Alan Johnson demanding an amnesty for all illegal immigrants.

It didn't really need Mr Cruddas to pose the question of which government all these people have been members of for the past few years.

But even if it were the case that Labour is about to perform a "lurch to the left," the Tories' trumpeting of Mr Blair's public service reforms is in any case slightly disingenuous.

For the past 10 years, they have been attacking them, sometimes because they thought they did not go far enough, but also at times because they believed that New Labour was too fond of tinkering.

Now they are saying that it was really they who were in favour of the reforms, while Mr Brown, despite having served as Chancellor for 10 years, never actually was. Confused? Well, if the current trend for this sort of political cross-dressing continues, you soon will be.

A more profitable line of attack for the Tories might be to portray Mr Brown not as the closet Leftie, but as the no-change candidate - the Blairite continuity candidate if you like.

In my view, this would probably have more public resonance in an electorate which seems jaded by New Labour and sceptical about whether Mr Brown can really provide a fresh start.

A third option would be to get deeply personal, and portray Mr Brown as a gloomy, psychologically flawed, Scottish control freak.

But much as this may chime with some peoples' view of him, the public is bored with that confrontational style of politics, and part of Mr Cameron's appeal is that he is supposed to be a "sunnier" sort of character.

Either way, the confusion about the Tory strategy has been reflected in the ongoing disarray within the party over grammar schools.

Mr Cameron has stumbled across this, almost by accident, as his Clause Four moment - the chance to demonstrate to the public once and for all that his party has changed by ditching its historic support for academic selection. But the ensuing row has demonstrated the dangers of the Tories too closely trying to mimic Mr Blair's strategy of defining himself against his own core supporters.

Whereas the Labour Party was, by 1994, so battered and bruised by defeat it was prepared to do whatever Mr Blair asked of it, the Tories are far less united, as Graham Brady's resignation showed.

In any case, the world has moved on faster than Mr Cameron thinks.

As Mr Brady has pointed out, selection by academic ability doesn't seem quite so unfair when compared to, selection by house prices.

By ditching his party's previous policy on creating new grammars, Mr Cameron thinks he is being "modern" and "progressive".

In fact, he is doing what the Tory Party has historically always done - standing up for the interests of the wealthy elite who can afford homes near the top State schools against those who have to make do with what Mr Campbell called "bog standard" comprehensives.

In my view, if Gordon Brown wants to lead a genuinely progressive government, he should take a close look at what Mr Brady and the other Tory rebels are saying.

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