After 100 days in charge, Cameron launches review to give the Tories 'direction of travel'

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Indy Politics

Critics claim his 18-month review will leave the Tories a "policy-free zone" with little to say about the key issues facing the country. But Mr Cameron intends to turn this argument on its head by asking his review groups to publish a series of interim reports, discussion documents and proposals submitted by his frontbench spokesman.

Mr Cameron, who is in his 100th day as Tory leader today, will use the policy review to set out a clear "direction of travel" as he modernises his party's programme to keep it firmly on the political centre ground. Some ideas may be road-tested and dropped if they hit problems.

"Far from being a policy vacuum, we can show that we have plenty of ideas for tackling the country's problems. In any case, we wouldn't want to outline final policies for another two years," said one senior Tory.

After boosting the Tories' standing in the polls to draw level with Labour, Cameron and his team can look back on their first 100 days with satisfaction. But, amid signs that his media honeymoon may be coming to an end, his allies admit they now need to change gear to make further progress.

The party's private polling shows that Mr Cameron has established himself in the public mind but that voters are still unsure if the party as a whole has changed. "New leader, same old Tories," is a common comment.

To try to combat that, he will try to lock in the party's 250,000 members by balloting them on his new statement of aims and values. It disowns Margaret Thatcher's legacy by declaring that "there is a such a thing as society" and says "the right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich".

Labour has accused Mr Cameron of "opportunism" and believes its best line of attack is to say he has "flip-flopped" on policy, saying that he has now renounced key elements of the manifesto he wrote for last year's general election.

Mr Cameron's supporters insist that the voters do not mind him changing his mind, so long as he retains what they say is the most vital ingredient for political success - consistency. "You can flip but you can't flop," explained one aide.

For that reason, he may decline the opportunity to kill off Tony Blair's flagship Education Bill by joining forces with Labour rebels - a temptation that Michael Howard would have found hard to resist.

Given that people's impressions of party leaders are made quickly, his team believes that Mr Cameron's strategy is on course. It has an explanation for an opinion poll conundrum: surveys show the Tories ahead when people are asked how they would vote in a general election tomorrow if Mr Cameron was Tory leader and Gordon Brown leading Labour, yet Mr Brown is regarded as the better person to be Prime Minister. Tory aides believe this shows that people can imagine Mr Cameron in Downing Street but that he needs to prove before the expected 2009 election that he would be as strong a leader as Mr Brown.

Mr Cameron, who will do battle with Mr Brown across the dispatch box when the Chancellor presents his Budget a week today, faces the first major test of his ballot box at the local government elections in England on 4 May.

Given the expections aroused during his media honeymoon, the Tories began yesterday to lower them to avoid a sense of disappointment when the results become known. Although the Tories should capture control of more councils in London, where all seats are being contested, it will be harder to make sweeping gains elsewhere in the country.

Despite three crushing general election defeats, the Tories are the largest party in local government and gained control of several seats during local elections last May. In urban areas, where most of the elections take place this year, the Tories are starting from a very low base and spectacular gains will be hard. There is not a single Tory councillor in Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle - something Mr Cameron needs to rectify as he portrays the image of a party that can represent the whole nation.

* Rehman Chisti, a former Labour parliamentary candidate, has joined the Tories and been appointed an adviser on diversity and ethnic minorities by the Tory chairman, Francis Maude, whom he stood against in Horsham at last year's election. Mr Chisti said: "Under David Cameron the Conservatives provide hope and inspiration to the public at large who have become disillusioned with New Labour. Tony Blair's Labour Party is out of touch with modern Britain."