How to Make Him Sweat: For the First Time since 1997, Labour's Inner Circles Sense There Is a Real Opposition and, What's More, That Tactics Must Change to Deal with It. Martin Bright Reports on the Coronation of David Cameron ... and Its Consequences
Bright, Martin, New Statesman (1996)
The anti-Cameron war room in Downing Street is already up and running. "We realise we are up against a Premiership team now, when we have been dealing with a Championship side so far," is how one senior aide to the Prime Minister described the Tory challenge to me. In the laddish world of new Labour, where football is the lingua franca, this is a considerable compliment to David Cameron. Admittedly, it was followed by a swift qualification: "We are fighting a proper opposition, but it is not Chelsea." Yet Tony Blair's team believes Cameron will give Labour the first real competition it has faced in a decade, and that is a tribute to the 39-year-old newcomer, who has been playing in the top league for only four years.
Each meeting of key advisers inside No 10 now addresses "the Cameron issue". One of the main figures in these discussions will be Conor Ryan, David Blunkett's former spin-doctor. Ryan, a formidable operator with a photographic memory for the detail of policy, has been tasked with getting Blair's Education Bill past Labour MPs early next year. He knows that Cameron's tactic, in smothering the government with support, is to make Blair's divorce from his own party permanent.
Considerable work is being done, in preparation for preemptive strikes, on Cameron's political past and his limited policy announcements during the leadership campaign. The plan is to leave people in no doubt that he is a man of the right, despite his attempts to represent himself as a centrist politician. Labour politicians will be briefed to play up his role as an adviser to Norman Lamont and Michael Howard under the last Tory government, and to highlight his attempts to win over the Tory right during the May election campaign. His establishment of a commission on the flat tax, his proposal to withdraw from the European People's Party Group in the European Parliament and his commitment to bolstering the family have laid him open to the charge of being a Conservative in the traditional mould.
This line of attack was already evident in the television interviews given by Labour MPs straight after the Cameron coronation. Speaking even before Cameron had made his acceptance speech, Ed Miliband, the former Treasury adviser, declared: "A flat tax would mean that a nurse paid the same percentage of their income in tax as a billionaire. David
Cameron is perfectly entitled to his view that that's a good idea. I don't think that's where the British people are, I think that will offend their sense of fairness, and I don't think it's where the country wants to go." Miliband went on: "I think David Cameron is still pretty much stuck in the past, maybe not in terms of his image, maybe not in terms of his love of The Smiths, but actually in terms of his philosophy."
Among some in the Labour machine there is genuine admiration for the way Cameron dealt with questions about whether he took drugs as a student. This is matched with a growing belief that he is beginning to show as much panache in shedding his political past as he has in blocking off discussions about his past private life. …