It was never meant to be like this. Labour was meant to roll into Bournemouth this week muttering about the failing leadership of Gordon Brown. The Tories would be going into their last ever Blackpool conference in a buoyant mood, with the polls showing a clear lead over Labour. Talk of an autumn election would be for the fairies. Except that Gordon Brown has confounded everybody, probably including himself. His conference this week has reflected his first three months in power – full of confidence and assertiveness. Brown continued his quest to steal the Tories' clothes and much of his speech could easily have been given by a Conservative leader.
One image from this week continues to haunt me – the sight of Alan Milburn and Peter Mandelson professing loyalty to Gordon Brown and declaring what a wonderful Prime Minister he is. This public display of total loyalty from two of Brown's sternest critics offers a warning to those travelling to Blackpool this weekend. In 2003 Iain Duncan Smith warned his party: "Unite or die." That warning should be heeded by all Tories next week.
Let there be no doubt. Urged on by the Brown spin doctors, the media will be on "division hunt" next week. Any criticism of David Cameron by the chairman of Middletown Conservatives will be blown up into a crisis for the Tory leader. A speech by Sir Bufton Tufton (the politician formerly known as Michael Ancram) hinting at the need for a different course will make front-page headlines in the Mirror. Be warned. It will happen.
Ah, I hear you say, but if we can't have a frank debate at a conference, what has the world come to? Isn't the fringe where politicians traditionally say what they really think? In normal circumstances, yes. But if the party can't recognise the need for unity when it could face a general election within weeks it will have demonstrated it has learnt nothing from the past decade and shown itself unfit to rule. Make no mistake, the electorate will be watching.
Every politician has a ''naughty brain", the one that craves attention. (Norman Tebbit, are you listening?) It's so much easier to say what you think and hang the consequences. You're flattered to be asked to speak at the fringe meeting of the Daily Bugle and there's part of you that knows that they're expecting payback. Well, this year, zip it. Keep your thoughts to yourself.
Lynton Crosby, the bombastic Australian who ran the party's last election campaign, used to suggest to all MPs and candidates that they look at themselves in the mirror every night and ask the question: "What have I done today to make a Conservative victory more likely?" Tories at all levels would do well to heed that advice in Blackpool next week.
In a strange way, Gordon Brown may have done the Conservatives a favour and shaken the party out of its complacency. Surely now every Conservative realises that they are up against the greatest machine politician since Lyndon Johnson. There's only one way to beat him – and that's to be determined in mind and united in purpose. Being the ''nice" party is just not enough. If this week hasn't proved the need for total war on Mr Brown, nothing will.
The shadow cabinet needs to get into attack dog mode and be relentless in its exposure of Brown's failures. The party needs to be far more innovative and aggressive in the way it campaigns. It's all very well coming up with policy after policy on widgets, but at the moment the Conservatives are letting Brown get away with blue murder. They should take a leaf out of ConservativeHome's The Wrong Man website and attack him where it hurts. It's not being nasty, it's what Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is there to do – hold the government of the day to account for its actions. Too many open goals have been missed, particularly on economic and health issues.
If Gordon Brown wimps out and fails to call an election this autumn it's a decision that may haunt him for the rest of his life. The Conservatives will have had a very narrow escape and will be rejoicing in the fact that their collective bluff was not called. There is then a eight-month window before the next likely election date of May 2008. The Conservatives must use these nine months to recover the ground lost in the last three. It won't be easy, but it will necessitate a change of approach.
David Cameron should open up his close-knit circle of advisers. He and his team need to continue on the path they have set out, but to widen its appeal to those who have felt excluded. This doesn't mean a reversion to the ''core vote strategy", but it does mean expounding on core principles a little more often and a little more volubly. There will be plenty of opportunities to do so, the first being Mr Cameron's speech on Wednesday.
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