HOW do you recover when a Brown bounce smacks you at full velocity right between the eyes?
It’s a question Tory leader David Cameron and his advisers have been mulling over with increasing urgency over the past two weeks. The biggest problem Mr Cameron has is that he himself has spent months predicting a surge in the polls for Labour once Mr Brown takes over, yet seems completely unprepared for it now that it has happened.
Going to Rwanda when his own constituency was flooded seems like an error of judgment, although he can’t, of course, have predicted the latter event. Yet why didn’t he go to Rwanda this coming week instead, with Parliament in recess and acres of news coverage guaranteed for himself?
He pays people to think of these things, but I could have told him that for free.
But Mr Cameron’s problems will remain once the flood water recedes from the Severn and Thames valleys.
I asked Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan this week what the party could do to reverse the trend in the polls, which have shown Labour consistently five points ahead since Mr Brown became Prime Minister.
She disagreed with my premise that the poll trend had established itself, which is fair enough – until another poll 48 hours later put Labour nine points ahead.
Sometimes you need to step outside the Westminster bubble to realise what the real issue is.
I watched Mr Cameron defend himself on TV the other night, and a friend who’s not involved in politics remarked, “He just hasn’t done anything”.
And that’s the point. Even equally-beleaguered Sir Menzies Campbell has rallied his troops, and actually launched some welfare policies yesterday.
Every time Mr Cameron has tried to do policy, it’s collapsed around his ears. The grammar school debacle is one example: one Tory MP told me the press had actually underestimated the damage that volte face had done, an analysis that suggests some serious discontent. And one popular idea suggested – a tax break for married couples – has no guaranteed place in the Tory manifesto.
Mr Brown is letting it be known he might call an early election; Mr Cameron says there will be a Conservative “pre-manifesto” in October.
Most worrying of all, the slump in the polls has revealed how fragile Mr Cameron’s grip on the party is.
The impression MPs have been giving is that they are prepared to put up with a leader with no tie who talks about the environment a lot if it means he’s ahead in the polls, but not if he isn’t. There’s no serious talk of yet another leadership crisis – after all, who else have they got?
But Mr Cameron needs a strong performance at his party conference in October. That gathering is in Blackpool, where he first worked his magic on the party two years ago. His supporters are hoping he hasn’t forgotten the formula.