Why the sunshine may not last long

Over the 10 months since he was elected, it is fair to say that David Cameron has enjoyed a more positive media profile than any Tory leader since the early days of John Major.

Over the 10 months since he was elected, it is fair to say that David Cameron has enjoyed a more positive media profile than any Tory leader since the early days of John Major.

The political media, desperate to see something like a return to normal two-party politics after the one-party hegemony of the Blair years, has done all it can to help build up Mr Cameron into a genuine contender for power.

His rise and rise has coincided with the growing unpopularity of Tony Blair's Labour Government and its perceived obsession with the question of who will succeed the Prime Minister - and when.

So it was not surprising that he went into the party conference season not only ahead in the polls, but as the only main party leader not threatened by a challenge to his own position.

But is Cameron the real deal?

Well, as The Journal's Political Editor Zoe Hughes said in her Labour conference preview on Monday, the season has been dominated bythe theme of "style versus substance."

The first two conferences saw one party leader and one would-be party leader each battling to convince the public that they possessed a bit of star quality alongside their undoubted political track records.

I don't think that either Sir Menzies Campbell or Gordon Brown wholly succeeded in this,although Mr Brown did remind us that even after nine years in high office he is in no danger of running out of ideological steam.

Mr Cameron's challenge in Bournemouth this week was different. He had to show that beneath the undoubted political style lies the political substance of real values, real policies, real commitment.

So did he manage it? Well, to take the positives first, I could not help but admire his chutzpah in using Wednesday's keynote speech to focus on the Tories' traditional Achilles heel - health.

"The National Health Service is one of the 20th century's greatest achievements," Mr Cameron reminded us, neglecting to mention that it is, of course, a Labour achievement for which Labour has normally reaped the political dividend.

But these are not normal times. A Government which came into power claiming it had "24 hours to save the NHS" has, incredibly, ended up closing hospitals in its tenth year in office.

Labour is suddenly vulnerable on the NHS, and although this region has so far remained unaffected, the cutbacks elsewhere offer a potentially rich electoral seam for Mr Cameron to mine.

That said, Mr Cameron was not exactly explicit about opposing or reversing the cuts, and it has been rumoured that a firm pledge to that effect was dropped from his speech at the last minute.

And that, in essence, illustrates what most people see as the Conservative Party's main drawback under his leadership - its absence of real policies.

Mr Cameron's declared opposition to tax cuts and support for gay marriage is just pure Blairism, the tactic of defining oneself in opposition to the views of one's own party.

It may work as a piece of political positioning. But it won't work as a genuine prospectus for power.

Ironically, as far as the North-East is concerned, the Tory leader did manage to come up with a concrete proposal, promising a referendum on whether we should retain development agency One NorthEast.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm all for democracy and I'm generally in favour of regional referendums as a means of deciding issues of great regional significance. But at this stage of the game, after a region-wide vote on an elected assembly and countless smaller ones on elected mayors, I can't help thinking that the North-East might be suffering from referendum fatigue.

Neither, for that matter, do I expect the appointment of Rutland and Melton MP Alan Duncan as the Shadow Minister for Tyneside to be a huge vote winner round this neck of the woods.

And then, of course, there was the "sunshine" episode, and no, I'm not talking about the weather down in Bournemouth.

In a week in which he purportedly set out to convince the public he is a serious politician, Mr Cameron actually concluded a speech on the opening day of the conference with the words "Let sunshine win the day."

This almost ranks up there with Iain Duncan Smith's enduring classic from three years ago: "The quiet man is here to stay - and he's turning up the volume!"

And as for George Osborne's jibe against the "autistic" Gordon Brown, well call me a PC freak if you like, but to my mind that's really no different to calling a disabled kid a spastic.

So all in all, this was a slightly underwhelming week for the Conservatives, particularly when set against the fact that Labour's conference managed to exceed some pretty dire expectations.

But in the bigger scheme of things, I don't think the 2006 conference season has really taught us a huge amount about the likely direction of British politics over the next few years.

Until we know the identity of the person Mr Cameron will be up against at the next election, we won't really know how the dynamics of the contest are going to shape-up.

We also don't know whether, once rid of Mr Blair, the public will be prepared to give the new Prime Minister a fair wind, as they did in 1990 when John Major took over.

Some in the Labour Party appear mesmerized by Mr Cameron, arguing that they need a figure of comparable freshness and charm to counter the new Tory threat.

For my part, I tend more to the view that a "style v substance" election would suit Labour, and that a man of Mr Brown's vast experience would take a jumped-up PR man like Cameron apart.

What we do know is that governments tend to lose elections rather than oppositions win them, and that it is the party in power that has the greater ability to make the political weather.

So whatever Mr Cameron may think, and whatever the polls may say, my bet is that the next election is still Labour's to lose.

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