Page last updated at 13:43 GMT, Monday, 29 December 2008

Political review 2008: Conservatives

By Gary O'Donoghue
Political correspondent, BBC News

David Cameron meets Barack Obama in July
David Cameron hopes to emulate Barack Obama but has work to do

Hold onto your hats, because it has been a see-saw year in the political fortunes of the Conservative party.

As David Cameron emerged blinking into the sunlight of the New Year, he had, if not reasons to be cheerful, then cause to experience a little schadenfreude at the problems mounting for Gordon Brown.

First the PM had just, as the Tories put it, bottled the general election and the prime minister's early and surprisingly glamorous honeymoon was over.

Second the credit crunch had started to hit home and for the first time in more than a hundred years, there had been a run on a British bank with the extraordinary sight of queues of savers lining up outside branches of Northern Rock to extract their cash.

And third there was the price of oil, hitting $100 a barrel in January, sparking the first of two massive price hikes in gas and electricity bills and fuelling fears of a return to a 1970s-style energy crisis.

With Labour forced to nationalise Northern Rock, it looked like the Tories would be able to paint Gordon Brown as returning to his old Labour roots, allowing the Conservatives to reclaim the economic high ground which they had enjoyed under Margaret Thatcher.

So Mr Cameron was definitely on the upswing.

Enter Derek Conway, very definitely a "non-Cameroon" Conservative MP, and his expulsion from the Commons for ten days at the end of January for paying his son out of Commons allowances for work there was no evidence he had done.

The spectre of Tory sleaze raised its head, with echoes of cash for questions - the kind of thing that had done for John Major's administration.

So decisiveness was required and, unfortunately for Mr Conway, that was what he got - a withdrawal of the Conservative whip, effectively expelling him from the party.

Mr Cameron promised to force all his MPs to declare which family members they were employing, stealing a march on the lugubrious House of Commons machine which eventually decided to do the same for everyone.

His strategy began to pay dividends.

The polls had already started moving significantly in Mr Cameron's direction at the end of 2007, and as May's local elections approached Labour's support began to slump further and further.

Not even being caught red-handed by a national newspaper jumping a red light on his bike in April appeared to dent the Tory leader's increasingly stratospheric lead.

Poll victories

May most certainly represented the height of David Cameron's upswing.

First came the local elections. More than 200 extra seats falling into Tory hands, and a couple of totemic wins in northern England such as Bury and North Tyneside.

Then, a day later, Boris Johnson snatching the London mayoralty from Ken Livingstone - something that had seemed unthinkable a few months before.

David Cameron and Boris Johnson campaigning ahead of May's mayoral election
Seeing Boris Johnson win in London was one of 2008's main triumphs

And at the end of the month, the Crewe and Nantwich by-election saw a 17% swing from Labour to Conservatives bringing the seat into Tory hands for the first time since its creation 25 years before.

To crown it all, May also saw the Tories extending their poll leads over Labour into double digits, and the rumbling over Gordon Brown's future began to be audible.

For much of the summer, Mr. Cameron managed to keep his end of the see-saw well above the level and that in spite of more expenses difficulties surrounding first the party chairman, Caroline Spelman, and then various Conservative MEPs.

Even the eccentric resignation of the shadow home secretary, David Davis, over government plans for 42-day detention without charge, seemed to do little damage to the party.

In June, holding the smart Home Counties seat of Henley, vacated by Boris Johnson, was, of course, a dead cert.

Nonetheless, the fact that Labour was so humiliated in getting fewer votes than the BNP added to the sense that GB was finished.

Barely a month later in July, and the Tories looked on gleefully as the SNP trounced Labour in Glasgow East and Foreign Secretary David Miliband marked the beginning of the summer holidays by writing a newspaper article which was interpreted as the starting gun on a leadership challenge to the prime minister.

Fortunately it was a race David Cameron could enjoy from the sidelines - lucky really since his red-light jumping bike had just been nicked from outside Tesco.

As summer faded into autumn, the Brown leadership seemed to wilt further, with the resignations of junior government figures and his party's poll ratings still bumping along in the mid 20s.

But then something happened.

'Yacht-gate'

As bank after bank began to crumble, Gordon Brown seemed to find a new lease of life.

The naysayers melted away and as the chancellor promised to ear-mark half a trillion pounds for the banking bail out, Labour's stock began to rise with the voters, as stock markets around the world fell through the floor.

Suddenly the government had the initiative, and David Cameron was forced to agree with the recapitalisation of the banks and his end of the see-saw started moving downwards.

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne answers questions from reports
The 'Yachtgate' affair proved an uncomfortable moment for the Tories

Just the moment when you do not want your shadow chancellor splashed all over the papers, accused of soliciting donations from a Russian oligarch, while enjoying his hospitality on a large yacht in the Mediterranean, in the company of Peter Mandelson.

It marked the first really big wobble in the Cameron project - a moment when his closest lieutenant came close to undoing all the work the leadership had done in persuading the electorate that the Tories were no longer the "posh party" and understood people's fears over the looming recession.

But George Osborne managed to hold onto his job and the Conservatives began turning their thoughts from the bail out to the recession and how to pin the blame for it onto Mr Brown.

That is still a work in progress though Mr Cameron has been rattled by the fact that the polls have increasingly trusted Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling to manage the economic situation rather than himself and Mr Osborne.

The Damian Green affair in November again threatened to throw Mr Cameron off course. It never looks good when one of your senior frontbench spokesmen gets his collar felt by the boys in blue.

But, cleverly, the Tories have managed to turn it to their advantage, making it an issue of Parliamentary freedom and getting cross-party support for their view that the police acted in a heavy-handed fashion.

Economic message

So as the year draws to a close - possibly one of the most momentous in recent times for this country - where does David Cameron find himself?

In polling terms, he is more or less back where he was, hovering around the high 30s to early 40s and without a sufficient lead over Labour to guarantee a healthy parliamentary majority if a general election were held now.

David Cameron visits a business near Oxford
The Conservatives have struggled to hone a clear economic message

In political terms, he has struggled to articulate a message on the recession, and has suffered badly from Labour's accusation that the Tories are the "do nothing party".

But, Mr Cameron's see-saw aside, the British economy is just at the beginning of the real downturn and he may well find that he will reap some dividends of his own from the slump, particularly if it lasts as long as some now fear it will.

Two weeks ago Gordon Brown's officials said he was the first prime minister to visit the front line since Churchill when he met British troops at Camp Bastion in southern Afghanistan.

David Cameron will be hoping that those similarities extend to Churchill's electoral fortunes - since it was a not-so-grateful electorate that thanked Churchill for winning the war by booting him out of office as soon as it was over.

Will the voters treat Gordon the same after his economic war?



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