On one point, there was relief. If there had been a little more Davisite crumbling, pushing the Cameron vote to around 100, there might have seemed no point in prolonging the contest. Mr Cameron did want to prolong the contest. He saw it as an unrivalled opportunity to capitalise on the interest which he had aroused; to create further momentum so that the Tories can seem exciting, against a stale and discredited government.
One senior BBC journalist told me that "we will cover this like a European Championship''. For eight years, Tory leaders have bewailed their inability to attract attention. David Cameron has solved that problem. This could bring the Tories millions of pounds worth of free publicity.
Mr Cameron still has a few obstacles to overcome. Such a rapid rise is bound to arouse scepticism. Some commentators who do not know him, and try to conceal their ignorance with clichés about the Notting Hill set, are also implying that if they do not know David Cameron, there cannot be much to know. Doubts are being expressed about his grasp of policy detail.
This could not be more inaccurate. If anything, Mr Cameron knows too much about the details of policy-making. He spent several years as a staff officer, contributing to policy work. In that regard, he is better qualified for No 10 than Tony Blair was in 1997. In those days, Mr Blair thought that he could be the sort of Prime Minister that Hugh Grant portrayed in Love Actually: swanning around in a haze of luvviedom.
Even today, Mr Blair will often become peevish if officials raise practical objections to the broad sweep of one of his proposals. "These are just details,'' he will complain. "You lot sort them out.'' David Cameron knows better. He understands that if the details do not work, the big picture will disintegrate.
In this, he is wiser than a number of Tory MPs. Separation from power has led them to forget its realities. So has the romantic myth of Thatcherism, which only sees the shining end product and ignores the blood, sweat and toil which went into building it. Whatever their excuse, some Tories confuse policymaking with sloganising and self-assertion. To them, it is simply a question of having the courage to order chicken vindaloo with extra chillies, or bathe in the Serpentine on New Year's Day (if you did one, you might feel the need to do the other). According to this school, policy-making is an alpha-male contest among great apes. The winner is the one who beats his breast hardest while bellowing "tax cuts'' and " school vouchers'' loudest.
David Cameron does not believe that his party can shout its way to the right policies. He would like to see much greater parental choice in education and much more patient choice in health care. But he does not believe that the state should abdicate its responsibility for raising standards. Nor does he believe that the Tory party should merely offer life rafts to a few refugees from the public sector.
Above all, he is convinced that it would be folly to try to write the 2009 manifesto today. As leader, he will launch a comprehensive policy-making exercise on a scale which the party has not seen for decades. Before that is completed, and until he is approaching the threshold of office, he will agree with Margaret Thatcher that the direction is more important than the detail
At least as regards British domestic policies, a useful map reading has been set out in Chris Patten's recent book, Not Quite the Diplomat. " Conservatives should offer lower taxes, better management of the public sector and the use of market instruments for enhancing the quality of public provision and the resources available to it ... there is room for greater private provision in health care, education and pensions ... I know no sensible definition of Conservatism that includes the belief in a Big State and writes its manifestos on open cheques for public services.'' Add a reference to the distant, sunlit uplands of school vouchers, and that is a summary which should command the universal assent of common sense conservatives.
It is much more useful than Michael Portillo's recent offerings. In the late 1970s, Enoch Powell was consistently snide and mean-spirited about Margaret Thatcher, as if he could not forgive her for seizing the political opportunities which he had spurned
Recently Michael Portillo has reacted in the same way to David Cameron. Mr Portillo was happy to praise Mr Cameron - until he became a candidate for the leadership. A clever, eloquent, charismatic youngster with a modernising agenda: it seemed as if Michael Portillo could not forgive David Cameron for succeeding where he had failed.
Mr Portillo began by dismissing the younger man's chances. Now that it is clear to the meanest intelligence that this is nonsense, he is trying another tack. In his latest article, Mr Portillo states that a Cameron victory is almost inevitable. He then urges David Cameron to throw away his unassailable lead. "If tax cuts, stable families and Euroscepticism do not fit the current project, whatever sentiment Cameron may have towards them, they also must be torn up.''
A Conservative project without stable families, tax cuts and Euroscepticism would not be worthy of the name. If he could still think straight about the party he once adorned, Michael Portillo would see that. But now that the Tory party is no longer a vehicle for his ambitions, Mr Portillo has lost interest in his former colleagues' welfare. When he writes about the Tories, the banality of his prose style is a thin cloak for the bitterness of the tail-less fox. It is sad to see the way in which the once-rising hope of the stern and unbending Thatcherites has dwindled into an envious political invertebrate.
Apropos of stern figures, I owe an apology to Michael Howard. So does almost the entire Tory party. When he resigned after the election, most of his fellow Tories were furious. They felt that he had acted when he was too exhausted to do anything except choose between claret and burgundy, and had landed his party with a wholly unwanted leadership contest.
They, and I, were wrong. Michael Howard had realised that an early leadership contest was inevitable. A prolonged period of uncertainty would merely give David Davis the chance to convince his colleagues of the inevitability of mediocrity; Mr Howard was aware that he had trained his successor. David Cameron was the Tories' best hope for many years. This was his chance; it was up to him to take it.
Take it he has; Mr Howard's judgement has been vindicated. He has earned his party's undying gratitude.Reuse content