My weekly column today looks ahead to the new political season and in particular at the task facing David Cameron as he attempts to claw back the ground lost prior to the summer break.
The political year 2007 thus far has been a year of changing seasons. The underlying narrative of the spring was: Who could stop Gordon – and would David Miliband or anyone else even dare to try?
No-one did, of course, and hence the underlying narrative of the summer became: How high could Brown bounce – and could it persuade him to call an early General Election?
Well, I gave my verdict on that four weeks ago, and though there’s still time for me to be proved wrong, the prevailing wind now seems to be moving firmly in the direction of a poll in spring 2008 or later.
So assuming I am right and we are not moving into immediate pre-election mode, what, then, will be the underlying narrative of the autumn? I think it will be: Can Cameron burst Brown’s bubble?
Whenever that election is held, the Tory leader has much to do between now and then if he is to claw back the ground lost in the weeks and months since the leadership handover transformed Labour’s prospects.
If the events of the past couple of weeks are anything to go by, Mr Cameron is certainly going to give it a try. But the question is, how?
Does he continue to try to reposition his party on the political centre ground, in the face of continued sniping from his grassroots and the risk that his party will appear more and more divided?
Or does he retreat into a “core vote strategy” and face the inevitable accusation from Mr Brown and Labour that, for all his talk of caring Conservatism, the party hasn’t really changed?
On first examination, Mr Cameron’s behaviour over the past month has given succour to those who have called on him to pursue a more traditional Tory agenda focusing on the core issues of Europe, tax, immigration, and law and order.
So on Europe, he has been ratcheting up the pressure for a referendum on the new EU constitutional treaty - with a bit of help from David Blunkett, who seems to have put himself at the head of the first serious backbench rebellion of the Brown premiership.
Knowing quite how big a deal to make of this is a puzzling conundrum for Mr Cameron, given that the opinion polls say quite contradictory things about the European issue.
On the one hand, they say that most people agree there should be a referendum on the wretched treaty, on the other, that people are generally turned off when the Tories start “banging on” about Europe.
Immigration is a similarly double-edged sword. Mr Cameron’s contention this week that immigration had been too high over the past decade appears to be widely shared by the public as a whole.
But at the same time, the floating voters the Tories desperately need to reach appear to be alienated by such talk, suggesting it actually does them more harm than good.
By contrast, as I noted in last week’s column, law and order provides potentially much more fruitful ground for the Tories, with violent crime on the increase and rising concern about the “broken society.”
After ten years in power, Labour is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the charge of failing to be either tough on crime or tough on the causes of crime.
Potentially the biggest potential Tory vote-winner of all, in my view, is Inheritance Tax, which Mr Cameron is keen to abolish in line with the recommendations of the recent party commission on taxation and regulation.
The problem here for the Tory leader was not so much the message as the messenger. Entrusting the job of chairing the commission to the right-wing bogeyman John Redwood was a clear error of judgement.
Nonetheless, scrapping inheritance tax makes such obvious political sense that I would be amazed if Mr Brown does not in some way attempt to purloin this idea sometime between now and polling day.
Once upon a time, it was a tax which affected only the super-rich, but rising house prices coupled with the phenomenon of fiscal drag have pulled more and more of Middle England into its ambit and this is now reaching a critical mass.
So is Mr Cameron pursuing a “core vote strategy?” Many of the people who have been urging such a course on the Tory leader now think so.
Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential traditionalist website Conservative Home, said this week: “For a lot of us grassroots who have wanted to see this shift, it is beginning to happen.”
A more balanced verdict came from BBC Online’s Nick Assinder, who said the fact that Mr Cameron is now happy to debate such issues is a sign he is trying to reassure worried traditionalists that he really is a Conservative.
“After the best part of 18 months refusing to promise tax cuts, avoiding Europe and immigration and offering a middle-ground, often liberal agenda, that is not about to go unnoticed,” he added.
But to argue that Mr Cameron is seeking to reassure some of his party’s traditional supporters is not, of course, the same as arguing that he is pursuing a “core vote strategy.”
For my part, I think he is simply trying to have it both ways – exactly as Tony Blair did prior to 1997 when he attempted to put together a coalition of “New Labour” and the “heartlands.”
That coalition swiftly broke down after 1997, once Mr Blair’s determination to define himself in opposition to his party’s natural supporters became crystal clear.
But by that time, it didn’t matter. Labour was in power, and those MPs who thought Mr Blair should show more respect for the party’s traditions could effectively be marginalised.
Whether Mr Cameron can pull off the same trick now depends largely on whether he can instil the same sort of internal discipline on his party that Mr Blair managed between 1994-97.
By that point, Labour had become so desperate for power that they were prepared to subjugate all their most cherished values to the pursuit of that quest – and entrust it to someone they knew wasn’t really one of them.
I am far from convinced that the Tories have yet reached this point. Many still seem to believe that if Mr Cameron plays the old tunes loud enough, the voters will be forced to listen.
Keeping such people on board while steering his party towards the political centre ground is a hugely difficult tightrope for Mr Cameron to walk. But walk it he must.