Conservatives: Will Dave's high command prove too cosy a coterie?

As election year dawned, Team Cameron appeared to be cruising to victory. But they may have peaked too soon. By Andrew Grice
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Indy Politics

In politics, colleagues are often rivals and genuine friendships are rare. Yet the Conservative Party's high command is the exception to the rule: many of those with pivotal roles in its election machine are real friends.

David Cameron and George Osborne, the Tories' election co-ordinator, became chums when they entered the Commons at the 2001 election and often travelled to and from their west London homes together. They would usually go for a drink after "prepping" Michael Howard for Prime Minister's Questions when he was party leader.

Another "friend of Dave", Andrew Feldman, whom he has known since Oxford University, is chief executive in charge of Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ), which is fighting its first general election from a crowded, bustling third-floor office in Millbank, Westminster, in the same complex that became synonymous with New Labour under Tony Blair.

Mr Cameron's private office includes long-standing friends such as Steve Hilton, his hyperactive director of strategy and intellectual guiding star – one of many Cameroons who first met the Tory leader when they cut their political teeth in the Conservative Research Department almost 20 years ago. Others include Ed Llewellyn, a contemporary at Eton and Oxford who is now Mr Cameron's chief of staff, and his deputy Katherine Fall.

The friendships among the "Notting Hill set" do not mean there is no tension inside the leader's inner circle or between it and CCHQ. "David likes to hear different views; he thrives on that. He doesn't want to be surrounded by nodding dogs," one insider says. "He likes to weigh up all the arguments before making a decision."

For much of last year, Team Cameron was gliding effortlessly towards an election victory. But a plan to find booster rockets in January misfired. The roll-out of the Tories' draft manifesto hit a bump when Mr Cameron "messed up" over the party's plans to reward marriage in the tax system. That now infamous "I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS" poster is remembered for the allegation that Mr Cameron's photograph was airbrushed (which he denies). Claims that the Tories issued misleading statistics on crime and teenage pregnancies added to their woes. They sent conflicting signals on how deep their immediate cuts in public spending would be. A solid, double-figure opinion-poll lead dropped dangerously into single figures. Suddenly the headlines were all about a hung parliament.

A blame game was inevitable. There were complaints from some at CCHQ that the tightly-knit Cameron circle was "all about tactics rather than strategy", more interested in day-to-day combat than a long-term plan that would survive the inevitable pressure of an election campaign.

The critics said the Cameroons may have learnt much from the New Labour 1997 playbook, but had failed to grasp one crucial point: good presentation is not enough and must have solid policy foundations.

The "wobble" passed when the polls stabilised, and senior Tories put a brave face on it, saying lessons were learned and it was better to happen before rather than during the campaign proper. However, it also exposed tensions inside the Cameron camp. The five people who matter most are Mr Cameron; Mr Osborne; Mr Hilton: Andy Coulson, an "Essex man" and former editor of the News of the World; and George Bridges, a former Number 10 aide to John Major and ex-head of the party's research department recalled by Mr Osborne to help run the election.

Mr Hilton favoured an Obama-style campaign, relying heavily on change, while Mr Coulson, backed by Mr Osborne and Mr Bridges, thought that too vague and wanted a more hard-hitting one. After a "wobble" in February, Michael Gove, the shadow Education Secretary, was given a seat at the top table in an attempt to steady the ship.

"Hilton lost the battle for Cameron's ear," one insider claimed. It is probably an exaggeration – since Mr Hilton remains highly influential – but contains some truth . A sharper cutting edge, with a warning to voters not to give an undeserving Gordon Brown "another five years", was seen as a victory for the Coulson-Osborne-Bridges axis.

Yet that group is not without its critics. Some Tory MPs believe Mr Osborne is over-stretched and should either stick to his demanding enough"day job" as shadow Chancellor, or give it up and devote himself to running the campaign. "He might be happier being party chairman," said one source, claiming that Eric Pickles, the Yorkshireman who holds the job, is more a figurehead designed to counter "Tory toffs" jibes than an election strategist.

Mr Coulson is accused of being too hooked on a daily battle for good headlines. Mr Bridges, while respected by close colleagues, is described by critics as having a questionable record. "It may be bad luck, but we go down in the polls, lose by-elections or elections when he's around, and do better when he takes time out," one claimed.

Mr Bridges clashed with Lord Ashcroft, the Tory deputy chairman, in a previous life as a leader writer on The Times. Lord Ashcroft once accused him of being part of a "venomous" campaign against him when he was party treasurer.

Lord Ashcroft remains a pivotal figure in the Tory machine, despite attracting bad headlines when he admitted in February that he still enjoyed a "non-domiciled" tax status. The election will be the crucial test of the strategy he has masterminded in the marginal seats, partly funded by his own donations. He runs a "team within a team" at CCHQ, led by his loyal aides Stephen Gilbert and Gavin Barwell, supervising the performance of key-seat candidates and controlling their grants accordingly. Team Cameron retains faith in the operation despite some patchy opinion polls in the marginals. And yet the £400,000 poster blitz with Mr Cameron's picture proved that money is not everything.

There is frustration that the row over Lord Ashcroft's tax status overshadowed Tory policy messages and damaged William Hague, who secured his peerage in 2000 when he was party leader. The shadow Foreign Secretary and party's "deputy leader in all but name" will play an important role in the campaign, in part to counter the "posh boys" image of having Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne in the two top posts.

Other key players will operate behind the scenes. Oliver Letwin, the Tories' head of policy, has crafted the manifesto and road-tested many of its ideas to destruction. Dubbed "Gandalf", he mapped out the Cameron modernisation strategy when "Dave" was an outsider in the race to succeed Mr Howard as Tory leader, and it now faces its final hurdle.

Preparations for power have been handled by Francis Maude, an arch moderniser who heads the Implementation Unit. The Tories are probably right to claim they have the most detailed blueprint for office of any opposition party.

First there is an election to win. The clock in the middle of the CCHQ war room, counting down to the election, has ticked slowly. There has been a frustration and impatience in the air in recent months, especially among the young Turks."Now we just want to get on and win it," one said.