Analysis: All style and no substance? Leader is taking long view

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Indy Politics

David Cameron took the Tory conference by storm a year ago when he came from nowhere to become the front-runner in the party's leadership race. Now he is discovering why politicians regard being Leader of the Opposition as the toughest job in their trade.

He is also realising that the goal posts constantly move. Achieve one target and your critics and the media promptly set another.

When he became Tory leader, the fear was that he would not be able to maintain the momentum of his brilliant leadership campaign. But he managed that, by following the Blair Opposition Book 1994-97.

There is no doubt that Mr Cameron has got under Labour's skin - and that of the Liberal Democrats, too - by planting the Tory tent firmly in the centre ground. He colonised issues, notably the environment, on which the Tories had little to say for years. The strong brand image offered by a young leader meant that the public at least started to listen to the Tories again.

But in recent weeks, the commentators - and some Tories - have demanded more. The cry has gone up that Mr Cameron is "all style, no substance" because there is no policy flesh on the bones.

The criticism put the Tories on the defensive as their Bournemouth conference began yesterday. The mood was not helped by a YouGov poll showing them neck and neck with Labour on 36 per cent despite an attempted coup in the governing party.

"Perhaps the public have just switched off politics and haven't noticed," sighed one Cameron adviser.

Mr Cameron's problem is that if his strategy is not seen to be working, he may struggle to take his party with him. True, Tony Blair dragged Labour into contention by the scruff of the neck with only a small clique of true believers. His party tolerated rather than liked him, because he succeeded.

Mr Cameron made clear yesterday that the Tories will remain on the centre ground - whatever the flak from his own side. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard all vowed to do the same but all were pushed rightwards by pressure from Tory traditionalists to raise issues such as Europe, immigration and tax cuts.

This conference is meant to show the party's direction of travel. But detailed policies will not be unveiled until next summer. In his conference speech, Mr Cameron's big idea was "social responsibility", hardly one to set the voters' pulses racing. Tory strategists insist they don't need a big bang to match Mr Blair's decision to scrap Clause 4 because they are not ditching their long-held principles. But Mr Cameron does have his own Clause 4 - his refusal to pledge cuts in personal taxation before the next election.

He is adamant that he will not try to bribe his way to victory by making irresponsible promises on tax. His party doesn't like it. But if he sticks to his guns, the voters will notice - and just might.