Even if David Cameron is behind in the polls, he is ahead in the column inches. He has solved a problem which exasperated William Hague and Michael Howard. They would put a lot of effort into a speech and be rewarded with zilch coverage. Mr Cameron has no shortage of coverage. But he has created confusion among the commentators.
In recent days, he has been accused of lurching to the right. There is said to have been conflict between Steve Hilton, his policy advisor, and Andy Coulson, his communications chief who used to be editor of The News of the World. Mr Coulson, who comes from Essex, is reported to have prevailed, which is why Mr Cameron has been making Essex-man noises. These accounts have been ingenious and detailed. But the details are all wrong: the ingenuity misplaced. The reality is much more straightforward.
There have indeed been arguments. David Cameron's office has little of the sofa cosiness of Tony Blair's Downing Street. Mr Cameron and those around him are vociferous, self-confident characters who relish a good argument. The debates can be heated. But these are people who like and respect one another. They are dealing with thorny issues on which truth is more likely to emerge from vigorous exchanges than from politeness and platitudes. But dissension on the questions of the day should not be confused with ideological conflict. There are no factions in the Cameron entourage. There is certainly no significant divergence of view between Andy Coulson and Steve Hilton, who get on well.
There is a further crucial point. Some commentators have written as if Mr Cameron was only a weather vane, blown hither and thither by the wind. This is nonsense. He has surrounded himself with strong-minded advisors. But his most important political advisor is himself. Ultimately, he trusts his own political judgement more than anyone else's.
Nor does he do lurches. Recent developments are merely the latest phase in the unfolding of a strategy which was first devised in 2004 and has been implemented, more or less according to plan, since Mr Cameron won the leadership.
In 2004, David Cameron and Steve Hilton were both involved in preparing Michael Howard's election campaign. Both experienced the same frustration. All the polls indicated that traditional Tory themes – crime, Europe, school discipline, tax – were popular. Yet the Tories could not benefit. If voters were asked whether they approved of a policy, there would be an enthusiastic "yes''. When they were told that this was a Tory policy, the enthusiasm waned. The youngsters realised that they were condemned to market a trashed brand.
Abetted by others, including Daniel Finkelstein, Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin, Francis Maude, George Osborne and Edward Vaizey, Messrs Cameron and Hilton decided that the brand would have to be relaunched, until the voters were persuaded that they had changed, the Tories could not recover.
To make all this happen, Mr Cameron and his team decided to capture their party. Given the Cameroons' small numbers, tactical acumen and intellectual clarity when no one else was thinking straight, there is an obvious comparison with the Bolsheviks. David Cameron's victory was a benign Bolshevik coup.
We shall never know whether it was a necessary one. It could be argued that the Tories were a trashed brand because of the early-90s recession, whose malign electoral consequences were reinforced by party disunity and by a brilliant propaganda campaign orchestrated by Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson: the best spin-doctors since Goebbels. After 1997, the Tories had leaders to whom the public would not warm. But after 2005, when memories of the Nineties were losing their potency, there was a new, young leader. Who better to articulate the old Tory verities?
The Cameroons would not only counter that with polling data. They also rely on a political intuition. Many voters claim that they would support a party which abhorred sexual deviance and racial minorities while advocating sanguinary penalties for crime and repression for the young. But in their mental recesses, most voters are aware that those views are a nostalgic self-indulgence and that the real world is more complex.
Everyone in modern Britain has homosexual acquaintances, has been grateful to hard-working Asian shopkeepers, and is aware that the upbringing of the young is complicated. At moments, people may wish to take refuge from complexity in anger. But that will rarely occur in the polling booth. A majority of voters will be reluctant to support a party which seems nasty and simple-minded, especially if it is also seen as the party of the rich.
So the Cameroons implemented change. But their aim was to lead the voters to reassess Toryism, not to sunder their party from the Tory tradition. Mr Cameron himself is a small-c Conservative. On Iraq and the Middle East, he is a Kissingerian realist, not a neo-con. Although he accepts that the Laffer Curve works and that lower tax rates can produce higher tax receipts, he would never take the brakes off the fiscal deficit in an insensate dash for growth.
He is also a small-c Conservative on Home Office matters; after all, he worked happily for Michael Howard. In the thoughtful speech in which he did not say "hug a hoodie,'' he did say that children needed love. Committing a gross aberration in moral and intellectual judgement, Matthew d'Ancona castigated him for this. Does Mr d'Ancona think that it is only the children of people he knows who are entitled to be loved?
No half-sensible person should disagree with Mr Cameron's social concern. In many cities, we are creating a generation of children who are strangers alike to discipline, order and love. As one of the few acceptable modernisations of the New Testament would tell us, the greatest of these is love. All the feral, homicidal children who are such a threat to our peace of mind have one thing in common. They have not been loved.
Yet Mr Cameron would also insist that love cannot be the initial response to children armed with knives or guns. He wants to do everything possible to guide youngsters away from crime, to reform criminals, to mend a broken society. But he has never suggested that a single criminal should serve a single day less in custody for a single crime. When exhortation fails, he would use the clang of the prison gate.
It was always intended that Mr Cameron would spend the first year of a new leadership in projecting change. Year two would see a switch to grittier themes, with the help of the party's policy groups. Leftist commentators who were hoping for a pasteurised Tory party may be disappointed. But Mr Cameron is not changing course. Still less is he panicking. He is doing what he always intended to do: preparing his party to win.Reuse content