As the Labour movement was convulsed over the summer by the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn, the inner circle around David Cameron were quietly thinking long and hard about how to respond to the historic breakthrough by the Labour left.
At an emotional level, the Tories could barely believe their luck that the gods had decided to deliver to them a Labour leader to the left of Michael Foot who lacks any executive experience after 32 years as an MP.
But hard-headed thinking, directed by George Osborne with a major input from Michael Gove, prevailed as the Tory leadership made careful preparations to ensure that they, rather than the Labour leadership, defines Corbyn to the wider electorate.
The strategy will involve a twin-track approach in which the Tories will speak about Corbyn personally in respectful terms as they pay tribute to his success in securing such an emphatic victory. They know they need to tread carefully because they acknowledge that the strong support for a clear anti-austerity message, coupled with disdain for the established political class, could pose a threat to their own electoral base if Ukip captures some of that mood.
At the same time as speaking about Corbyn’s mandate in reverential terms, the Tories are wasting no time in pushing a brutal portrayal of the new Labour leader as a terrorist sympathiser who poses a threat to the security of the nation.
An online Conservative video claimed that Corbyn had described the death of Osama bin Laden as tragic, though it left out further quotes in which he said that he wanted to end all the tragic deaths over the past decade. The video also highlighted Corbyn’s description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” – the word he uses to describe all groups invited to meetings he chairs.
The Tory strategy, which is designed to show that Corbyn is even more extreme than the Trotskyist Militant Tendency which sought to infiltrate the Labour party in the 1980s, is not so much a fist in a velvet glove. It is more a wary hand of respect on one side and a clenched fist of war on the other.
Osborne, who is praying that he will face Corbyn at the next election as Tory leader, directed the planning for the Tory response to Corbyn over the summer with two simple insights, dating back to his painful period as political secretary to William Hague during his unhappy period as leader of the opposition.
Voters form an impression of an opposition leader very quickly, according to Osborne, who says it is up to the Tories to ensure that they define Corbyn as a dangerous hardliner.
The idea is to give the Labour leader no time to explain his brand to voters beyond the Labour party: that he sees himself as an authentic politician who has stuck to his principles over four decades and who wants to pursue a more inclusive approach to politics.
The chancellor cites the best and worst of his own career to explain his strategy. He has been known to shudder as he remembers how Hague never recovered from the pictures of him wearing a baseball cap as he rode on a water chute at Thorpe Park shortly after his election as Tory leader in 1997.
Osborne believes that the Hague team wrongly assumed he had space to show a less formal side on the grounds that the leader of the opposition carries a natural authority. He later said that politicians can only secure authority one way – by carrying a ministerial red box.
The best of Osborne’s career came, he believes, a decade later when he portrayed Labour as fiscally irresponsible for running up Britain’s largest fiscal deficit in the modern era. Labour’s claim that the crash was caused by the US banking system, rather than by pay rises for NHS nurses, has largely fallen on deaf ears after Osborne successfully framed the debate in his favour.
The chancellor believes Labour’s lack of economic credibility, after he set the terms of the fiscal debate, is central to explaining the Tories’ success in winning an overall majority at the general election.
The new situation means that the prime minister is likely to adopt an emollient and respectful tone when he faces his fourth Labour leader across the despatch at the first of their weekly parliamentary encounters on Wednesday.
Cameron will acknowledge that Corbyn wants to adopt a more consensual and constructive approach as he remembers his own approach at his first session of prime minister’s questions, when he offered to support Tony Blair on schools reforms.
Cameron will not shy away from showing some of the clenched fist as he challenges Corbyn on foreign policy and his plans for “people’s quantitative easing”. Yvette Cooper’s warning during the election campaign that this would provide “false hope” to people, in an echo of the pre-election claims by Nick Clegg, provides helpful ammunition.
Allies hope that the prime minister avoids a return to his slick and aggressive Flashman tactics of old which are seen to alienate middle-ground voters by reinforcing his greatest weakness: that he is a son of privilege.
In the Commons, Flashman Cameron is often provoked by an old warhorse of the left, Dennis Skinner. Allies will be hoping that a slighter younger figure on the left opposite him does not have the same effect.
This article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Monday 14th September 2015 17.34 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010