In the shadow of smart new plasma screens which beam every imaginable television news channel, disciplined young Tories are toiling away seven days a week in the newly renamed Conservative Campaign Headquarters.

With the general election months away, Tories are full of praise for the slick operation which is being masterminded by Lynton Crosby, a plain-speaking Australian who was the brains behind John Howard's four successive election victories.

Beyond this fervour, many Tories fear they are once again heading for an uncomfortable encounter with the voters when Britain goes to the polls.

Frontbenchers are asking searching questions about the party's chances of reconnecting with mainstream voters.

Where MPs were once able to blame their leader - William Hague was too rightwing or sounded too strange, Iain Duncan Smith simply failed to make it on to the radar screen - many Tories now wonder whether there are deeper reasons for their party's failure.

"Michael Howard has ensured that we will survive as a party," one member of the shadow cabinet said. "But it is not coming right yet."

Anthony Seldon, who recently published a history of the Conservative party, believes the tide of history is simply running against the Tories. Tony Blair is a political "genius" who is repeating the success of Lord Palmerston, the 19th century Liberal prime minister who helped keep the Tories out of power for more than two decades.

Mr Seldon says the party needs to recreate its two best years since the war: 1951, when Winston Churchill finally won an election, and 1979, when Margaret Thatcher threw out Labour and the postwar consensus. But one key ingredient is missing: Labour has not messed up the economy.

Strategists at Tory HQ can provide a sheaf of statistics to prove that Mr Seldon is being too pessimistic. Mr Howard won the European and local elections in June. While similar feats were achieved by William Hague, June marked a moment when Labour became the only governing party in modern British history to come third in a national election.

The UK Independence party, which looked like it could derail the Tories with its clear pledge to abandon the EU, is "imploding". The Tories cite the eminent psephologists Rallings and Thrasher, who have declared that the Ukip bubble has burst after Robert Kilroy-Silk spoke of his determination to "kill" the Tories.

Even dire byelection results contain hopeful signs, the strategists say. Leicester South, where the Tories sank to third place in a seat they held in the 80s, was not a complete disaster. Eager Tory staff did a "box count" and foundthat in two suburban wards the party performed better than in the 2001 general election.

But the party faces a long slog, well beyond the general election, for two reasons, according to Tories interviewed by the Guardian. Trust in Tony Blair has dropped so sharply that he is taking politicians from across the spectrum down with him. "We are suffering collateral damage," moaned one shadow minister.

The second reason: failure to paint a convincing picture of what the Tories would do in office. "I hope people are getting a sense that we are reasonable and practical," one member of the shadow cabinet said, but added: "In conveying that we have not got as far as I would have liked."



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