An unthinkable Tory victory?
Published in: Daily Mail
Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Is the unimaginable about to happen and the Conservative Party to snatch triumph from near-extinction by winning the general election?
Even to ask the question is to acknowledge the seemingly overwhelming odds against such a suggestion. For the Tories to achieve the electoral swing needed to overturn Labour's massive majority would entail, in the eyes of many, the biggest comeback since Lazarus.
But we live in disoriented and volatile times. Polls fluctuate; and the Tories have recently been dissolving Labour's lead like a blow-torch on an ice sculpture.
Beyond the polls, there is now a distinct feeling that something intangible has shifted in the political ether. It is not just the palpable panic in the Government's ranks over the inadequacy of Alan Milburn's tactics as Labour's election mastermind, or the desperately forced shows of unity between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to conceal the profound fissure at the very heart of government.
More than that, there seems to have been a subtle but perceptible shift in the national mood. Even last week's pork-barrel Budget left people looking askance. For they have begun to hear once again a sound that had almost disappeared from the national memory. It is the sound of the Conservatives' voice.
For the past few weeks, the Tory leader Michael Howard has been setting the political agenda. In the past, I have not been one of Mr Howard's biggest fans. There was too much about him that seemed nakedly opportunist. And there are still huge holes in the Tories' thinking. On the NHS, for example, they remain too timid about restructuring a system that is fundamentally bust. And their continued refusal to address the scourge of family breakdown, the single most important cause of so many social ills, remains a serious flaw.
Nevertheless, on important issue after issue Mr Howard has recently been scoring direct hits upon the government, forcing it painfully onto the back foot. In short, at this eleventh hour he has turned the Tories back into a real opposition.
It started with asylum and immigration, when Mr Howard went for the jugular by daring to confront the fact that the root causes of this crisis lay in international treaties. By boldly proposing to tear up or alter Britain's membership of these treaties, Mr Howard provided at last a clear alternative that left the Government badly winded.
Next, he has made highly effective use of the experiences of individuals, such as Margaret Dixon's repeatedly cancelled shoulder operation or Maria Hutchings's autistic child, to dramatise the conspicuous failure in the public services.
But maybe his most important development has been to start saying the unsayable. On issue after issue - bringing down the time limit for abortion, amending or abolishing human rights law, or now further attacking the way this has permitted travellers to drive a caravan and horses through the planning laws - he is at last giving voice to the silent majority who feel utterly disenfranchised by a political and legal class that seems to have taken leave of its senses.
Believing that they themselves are decent, tolerant, law-abiding people, this beleaguered majority feels that the middle ground they inhabit has been hijacked and - worse - that no-one sticks up for common-sense or justice, because to do so is to invite ridicule or vilification. It is hard to over-estimate public fury at this systematic upending of the notion of right and wrong, and the corresponding relief that a politician has summoned the courage to break the taboo against challenging it.
The key to Mr Howard's new approach is surely his Australian strategist Lynton Crosby, the architect of Australian Prime Minister John Howard's electoral victory. As an outsider, Mr Crosby is obviously uncorrupted by the single most crippling factor that has brought the Tories to their knees - their belief in Tony Blair's own mythology.
Their view that Mr Blair was riding high on social and cultural change pushed them into becoming Blairite wannabes. But the lesson of the last few weeks is that when Mr Blair's balloon is popped, he disintegrates. This was spectacularly proved after the Budget, when the Prime Minister was publicly humiliated by media attacks exposing the whopper he was telling about the Tories' intention to 'cut'