Cameron's challenge: So what could possibly go wrong?

The leader and his team may appear to be on the brink of power, but the row over Europe, their perceived complacency and a failure to present convincing policies could yet spoil the party
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It may have seemed comically over-optimistic when he was attempting to force himself into the Conservative leadership contest in 2005, but David Cameron's promise that "nothing and no one can stop us" appears increasingly prophetic.

Four years ago today, when the then shadow education secretary mounted the stage at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool for his first-ever conference speech, his party had lost three general elections in a row. Only the few enduringly positive members of the party expected an improvement in fortunes.

"We can change this party and we can change this country," Mr Cameron told delegates who were still largely leaning towards the front-runner, David Davis. "Let the message go out from this conference that a modern, compassionate Conservative Party is right for this time."

It was a radical view, but he has been remarkably consistent in making good his pledge that "there will be no turning back, no false starts, no more tacking one way or another".

Four years on, a combination of his own shrewd leadership and the hapless management of an embattled Prime Minister, dogged by catastrophic economic events, has propelled Mr Cameron to the brink of power. While last week's Labour conference may have marked the final rumblings of Gordon Brown, the Conservatives hope this week will be the start of David Cameron's long coronation. He takes the stage at Manchester Central this week as the overwhelming favourite to become the next prime minister, within nine short months.

The euphoria, the polling data, the support of Britain's biggest national newspaper and the growing desolation of the Tories' opponents can't be wrong. Or can they?

Such overwhelming supremacy presents the Cameron high command with a series of critical challenges that have not faced his party since it was last coasting towards an expected election victory, more than 20 years ago, in 1987. Complacency, a struggle to present a convincing policy platform to the electorate, the traditional Tory row over Europe and even the outside chance of a revitalised challenge from a moribund Government: there are many potential pitfalls that could interrupt Mr Cameron's serene waltz to power. With the nation's day of decision looming, the Conservative leader must prove there is political depth, even statesmanship, beneath the "call me Dave" affability that has won him such support so far. The party has pledged that, this week, it will finally begin to show the policies that will form the basis of its programme for government next spring

Mr Cameron has largely succeeded in the "detoxification" of his party: more liberal social and environmental policies have helped to recast it as a more caring organisation that can win the approval of voters who would previously have been turned off by its more strident face. But he knows that, in order to maintain that support, and transform it into support at the ballot box, he must present a comprehensive package of policies that make him look like a three-dimensional leader. The Independent on Sunday's opinion poll today suggests that many of his target voters admit they still do not know what he stands for. The slipperiness is demonstrated by his answers to 10 questions on policy, published in The IoS today.

Mr Cameron will attempt to reassure them in an interview on The Andrew Marr Show today and during his own keynote speech. "We won't be playing it safe," Mr Cameron insisted yesterday. "Instead we will be offering bold plans to deal with the big problems the country faces."

The gradual lifting of the veil began yesterday, with the announcement that the Tories would introduce a "home protection scheme" to prevent older people having to sell their properties to fund long-term care. The move is a surgical strike at the concerns of the ageing middle classes, one of the sectors the Tories must dominate if it is to have any hope of winning power. Party managers promise more policy initiatives to flesh out the Tory approach in other areas – for example, the pledge to break the "cartel" of the big six energy firms keeping retail energy prices high when wholesale prices fall, revealed by the shadow Energy Secretary, Greg Clark, in The IoS today.

However, the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, is expected to give little of note away in the central area of tax and spending – and the totemic issue of cuts in public services – at least until the Government reveals more about its own plans in the pre-Budget report this month. The lack of candour may cause problems, not least because the Tories must be expected to produce a comprehensive route-map to national recovery.

Nevertheless, the sense of impending power is tangible, and the mood is underlined by the size of the Tory jamboree this year. Figures released by the party this weekend showed that the number of fringe meetings has increased from 332 in 2008 to 371 this year, while there will be 118 exhibitors at conference, compared with 80 last year. Lobbyists and activists clearly believe they are now looking at a government in waiting.

Mr Cameron's colleagues are also desperate to clamp down on the complacency, even triumphalism, that has fatally damaged front-runners in the past. The expectant atmosphere has set the alarm bells ringing in Central Office, where there are fears that the four-day conference could turn into a celebration of the "coronation", to rival Labour's Sheffield rally in 1992.

"Of course, we cannot be seen to be pouring glasses of champagne down our necks," one Shadow Cabinet aide said last night. However, Tory organisers will be unable to stop the champagne flowing at the Party for Change on Wednesday, the last full night of the conference, before Mr Cameron himself closes proceedings with his speech on Thursday.

Conference week, therefore, begins not with a clarion call to prepare for government, but an official warning that the party approaches the election from "a historically weak starting point". An internal briefing paper, leaked on the eve of the gathering, tells aides, MPs and candidates that: "To become prime minister David Cameron must surpass the electoral achievements of both Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill." But Mr Cameron's glide towards power has the look of Tony Blair's victory in 1997 – and, like the former Labour leader, he can also count on the support of The Sun.

Britain's biggest national newspaper managed to enliven the Conservative conference almost a week before it started, and cast a pall over Labour's big event in one fell swoop last Tuesday. When the Prime Minister did his reluctant ring-around of editors to gather their views on his speech on Tuesday afternoon, he found the new man in charge at the nation's most popular daily strangely jumpy.

"Gordon said he was surprised that Dominic Mohan seemed a bit nervous," one close Brown aide said last night. "He thought it was perhaps because he was relatively new. It all makes sense now."

Mr Brown clearly knew the political value of The Sun's support, and the crushing effect that daily condemnation in its pages can have. But it was the timing of the attack, after Brown had pulled his party together with a rousing speech, that made it appear a vindictive assault, rather than a political manoeuvre. Thus the Cameron camp was left disappointed that the move was portrayed as an attack on the PM, rather than an endorsement of their man.

It remains one crumb of comfort for Labour, but the party is still convinced it can make headway elsewhere, as revealed in the old/new line of attack unveiled by Mr Brown and Lord Mandelson last week. Mr Cameron, they argue, stands for a privileged elite, rather than the majority – all cuts in front-line services and reductions in tax for the most well-off. It is a hoary old attack that has failed before, but in straitened economic circumstances they believe they can make it work.

More promisingly for Labour, the "Tory split on Europe" headline has been revived in the run-up to the conference, with a poll of 2,205 Tory members finding that more than eight in 10 want him to call a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty even if it has been approved by the next general election. Total withdrawal from the European Union is the most favoured option among party members when asked how a Tory government should handle the issue, while 82 per cent want to freeze Britain's financial contributions to the EU.

The challenge for Mr Cameron this week is to convince the country that his party has changed. If he can do that, he will be a step closer to Downing Street. As he observed during his career-making speech exactly four years ago: "There's one thing Gordon Brown fears more than anything else – a Conservative Party that has the courage to change."

What to expect at the conference: Will they keep the champagne on ice?

The policies

By the end of the week, David Cameron needs to convince the wider world that he has the policies to match the PR. Every day will see a Shadow Cabinet member unveil a new policy – to deflect criticism that they have an empty prospectus to put to the electorate. Today, it will be a replacement for the New Deal – entitled "Get Britain Working" – which will cover employment opportunities for those in schools and universities as well as the jobless. On Tuesday will be a pledge to end the "cartel" of energy companies keeping customers' bills high. The same day, George Osborne speaks on the economy – with very little room to move on tax and spending, there is likely to be, however, an eye-catching economic policy to rally the troops.

The fight against complacency

The desire among MPs and activists to celebrate the Tories' apparently imminent return to power could be difficult to control. There is a ban on champagne at official Conservative parties, but this is unlikely to hold in other parties on the fringes. Mr Cameron needs to be able to look like a prime minister in waiting but without any hint of complacency. The problem is, Shadow Cabinet members are already talking about "when we get into government".

Who to watch

For fashion-watchers, it is Samantha Cameron. For everyone else, it will be Eric Pickles – on Twitter, in the hall, on the fringe and at the parties. The Tory chairman, the northern working-class counter-weight to public school Cameron and George Osborne, is being pushed as the "face of the conference". He will have stiff competition from the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, though, who could overshadow the whole lot when he appears on stage on Monday.

Thorns in Cameron's side

Will Michal Kaminski and Roberts Zile, two leading politicians from Cameron's European Conservatives and Reformists with controversial views, overshadow his bid for power? Kaminski and Zile will appear at a fringe meeting, but Tory sources did not rule out last night the possibility that they might be in the spotlight on the main stage. Elsewhere, Daniel Hannan, the Eurosceptic MEP with incendiary views on the NHS, will appear on the fringe to push the case for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty – even if it has been ratified across Europe.

Measure of success

When Cameron walks on to the stage for his speech on Thursday, he needs to have achieved two things: the first, to neutralise the Europe issue; the second, to keep a lid on triumphalism. The Tory leader still gets nervous on these setpiece occasions – despite his apparent comfort both behind the podium or walking around – but this must be easier than the unknown quantity of rampant Euroscepticism mixed with too many glasses of Veuve Cliquot. Apart from that, it is his moment to lose. How close is Mr Cameron to power? The big story last week was about The Sun's defection from Labour to the Tories. But there are the hundreds of lobbyists who will be packing the hotel bars and fringe meeting rooms. There are the 2,000 journalists accredited for the event – a sure sign of how power is flowing to the Tories. Perhaps most significantly, Cameron has hired a photographer, Andrew Parsons, to document the inside story of his path to Downing Street – copying Barack Obama's campaign photos. Expect pictures of the Tory leader backstage agonising over his speech in the final minutes, or of downtime with Samantha.

Jane Merrick

Competition: Devise a policy for Dave

The Tory leader is much criticised for not having many of these – though a few may be on the way this week. We are offering Independent on Sunday readers the chance to help him out. Your suggestions can be serious or funny. We will publish a selection, and the best 10 will win boxed DVD sets of The New Statesman, featuring thrusting young politician Alan B'Stard. Please send your entries to sundayletters@independent.co.uk

Good luck!

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