In politics if you are not on the attack then you are on the defence, on the front foot or the back foot. For this reason courage is the friend of political leaders and caution, their enemy.
What Gordon Brown has proved in recent weeks is that when a governing party has confidence and self-belief it is far more willing (and able) to offer a lead and to take the tough decisions. What Brown is fast learning is that the British people are often happy and willing to forgive the occasional error and poor decision but they rarely forgive the leader who simply refuses to take a decision because it is too tough. The Tory labels of ‘bottler’ and ‘ditherer’ hurt Brown and for most of the past twelve months the media has been looking for (and occasionally gifted) opportunities to portray the former Iron Chancellor as a bumbling buffoon. The credit crunch has changed all that – or to be more precise, the Prime Minister’s handling of the global economic crisis has helped to restore his reputation for competence and decisiveness.
In contrast David Cameron’s handling of recent events has exposed him to criticism that he is a shallow, one dimensional leader who talks a good game but fails to deliver the big ideas when needed. Cameron has not had a good economic ‘war’ for several reasons. Firstly he has suffered from the perception that both he his party are too closely associated with the City fat cats whose greed triggered this financial meltdown. Secondly, since taking up their present posts neither he nor his shadow Chancellor has ever taken the opportunity to speak out against the dangers of a poorly regulated City. Thirdly, Cameron has not offered a clear policy alternative in terms of what a Tory administration would have done about the crisis had they been in office.
Perhaps now we will see the media turn its attention to exactly how Britain would be different if the Tories were to form the next government. Does Mr Cameron have the courage necessary to lead, to take the tough decisions? I doubt it. He says he wants tax cuts and more spending but with the same money. He says he wants to sort out all illegal immigration, but he opposes identity cards, the one thing essential to do it. He says he against academic selection one day but then backs plans to expand it the next.
Has the Tory party changed? Most of Mr Cameron's reforms have been primarily cosmetic (a new HQ, a new party logo) and short-lived (the party's "A" list of candidates). Today’s Conservative front bench is made up of the "right kind of people", Cameron’s people - privately educated and from a background of immense wealth and privilege. Under Cameron, the Tories still believe that the role of government is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who embrace their political, their economic, and their social views.
The events of recent weeks have prompted me to reflect on the words of the former Tory (now Labour) MP Quentin Davies. In his letter to Cameron outlining his reasons for leaving the Conservative party and join Labour, he wrote: "Under your leadership the Conservative party appears to me to have ceased collectively to believe in anything, or to stand for anything. It has no bedrock. It exists on shifting sands. A sense of mission has been replaced by a PR agenda." As the right wing press begins to turn on him, how long will it be before Cameron is forced to retreat towards having to peddle past Tory agendas? How long before he is told that he needs to embrace more "traditional" core Tory issues such as Europe, crime and the family? How long before a newly elected Tory leader who started out saying his aim is to recapture the centre ground of British politics, is yet again forced (by his own reactionary right wing) to move to the right in an attempt to hang on to the Tory core vote?