David Cameron has failed to win the backing of the Conservative grassroots for his drive to modernise the party, according to a survey for The Independent.
Although Mr Cameron remains popular with his party's members, they reject his stance on tax cuts and women candidates, and believe the Tories should be doing better in the opinion polls. They fear his strategy is demotivating some Tory supporters, and want him to change course soon by raising issues like tax, crime, Europe and immigration.
The online survey of 1,516 Tories was carried out by the ConservativeHome.com website, which regularly polls a panel of party members and accurately predicted Mr Cameron's victory in last year's leadership election.
The findings suggest the Tory leader may face a rebellion in his own ranks unless his party maintains a comfortable lead over Labour in the polls.
But as the Tory conference opened yesterday, Mr Cameron warned his critics he would not be "pushed around" or rush out policies to answer the charge that he is "all style and no substance".
He told the BBC's Sunday AM programme: "There are some people who, when they say they want more substance, what they mean is they want the old policies back. Well, they can't have them.
"We've fought elections before on up-front unfunded tax cuts," he said. "It's very important that people know I'm not going to flash up unfunded tax cuts up front. Stability comes first."
Later he told the Bournemouth conference that the Tories had lost touch with the public in the past by "banging on" about issues such as Europe and tax cuts.
He tried to lift the Tories' spirits by telling them to become the party of optimism. "Let sunshine win the day," he said.
Tax is emerging as the main focus of Tory dissent. A party policy commission, chaired by the former cabinet minister Lord Forsyth, is expected to propose £19.5bn a year of tax cuts.
According to The Independent's survey, Tory members are clearly unhappy about Mr Cameron's line. Some 63 per cent want to see a clear commitment before the election to cut taxes, while only 5 per cent back the leadership's stance that the party should have no plans to do so.
Some 33 per cent want the Tories to pledge only a small reduction, while 30 per cent want them to offer substantial tax cuts, and 28 per cent believe the party should not make a pre-election promise but should reduce taxes once they are in power.
If the Tories were to offer lower taxes, a majority (53 per cent) of party members want any cuts applied across all tax bands, and fewer (45 per cent) want them to be aimed at the lowest earners.
Fewer than one in six questioned endorse Mr Cameron's overall strategy. Just 15 per cent believe he has been right to downplay issues such as tax, crime, Europe and immigration and should stick to his current emphasis if he becomes Prime Minister. Some 35 per cent believe that it is sensible to play down such issues now, but that a Tory government would need to take "traditional positions" on them in office.
But 46 per cent think that downplaying these issues is "demotivating" some traditional voters, and that Mr Cameron needs to change course "quite soon". Only a tiny number of members have confidence in the A-list of candidates drawn up by Tory headquarters in an attempt to change the party's public face by ensuring that more women and people from ethnic minorities are chosen at the next election. Just 6 per cent believe the A-list includes the party's most talented candidates. Some 32 per cent think the list does not represent its full talents but is a necessary mechanism to increase the number of women and ethnic minority candidates. But a majority (54 per cent) regard it as "just a politically correct list that has excluded many of the party's most experienced male and local candidates" and is "a backward step".
When asked about the Tories' progress under Mr Cameron, almost two out of three members (65 per cent) think the party should be further ahead in the polls given Labour's problems, while a third (34 per cent) say its performance is encouraging.
Some 73 per cent of members are satisfied with Mr Cameron, and only 27 per cent dissatisfied, but giving him a strong "net satisfaction rating" of plus 46 points. However, his popularity has fallen steadily in the 10 months since he became leader.
The most popular figure is David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary and early front-runner in last year's leadership stakes, who has a net satisfaction rating of plus 72 points.
William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary and former leader, has a net rating of plus 56 points. Liam Fox, the shadow Defence Secretary, has a net satisfaction rating of plus 44 points, ahead of George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor and Mr Cameron's closest ally, on plus 34 points.
Oliver Letwin, the party's policy chief, has a net rating of plus 10 points; Theresa May, the shadow Commons leader, scores plus three, while Francis Maude, the Tory chairman, who has come under fire over the A-list, scores plus two.Tory members fear John Reid, the Home Secretary, and Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, more than Gordon Brown, the favourite to succeed Tony Blair as Labour leader.
ConservativeHome surveyed 1,516 Conservative Party members online between 26 and 28 September. More details at ConservativeHome.com