A year ago, Geoffrey Wheatcroft published The Strange Death of Tory England. Although the need for an arresting title had seduced him into overstatement, it was not an absurd thesis. After holding the electoral World Cup for most of the previous two centuries, the Tory party suddenly seemed lost. Leaders came, and went. In large parts of the country it no longer had a presence. Its voters were ageing; the sort of people who study the ads for retirement home communities. The party which used to regard itself as the national party seemed to have forgotten how to talk to the nation.
In three months, all that has changed. It is no longer a question of "Can the Tories ever win again?"; more a matter of "Could they actually do it in one bound, or will they have to settle for a hung parliament?"
David Cameron himself is entitled to almost all the credit for this. He has achieved it by following the EM Forster maxim: "Only connect". Mr Cameron set out to persuade Middle Britain that he cared about what it cared about; that its concerns were his concerns; its values, his values.
There is a simple test, with obvious electoral relevance. Imagine that the two main party leaders are your neighbours. You have to shoot out for an hour; whom do you ask to keep an eye on the kids? (It must be stressed that all this bears no relation to the actual domestic qualities of the individuals concerned. Public perceptions can be unfair and cruel. They can also swing votes.)
So, Blair vs Hague: walkover. Blair vs IDS: ditto. Blair vs Howard: more interesting. You might decide that the kids could do with a bit of discipline. You might also be afraid that when you got them back, they'd wet the bed for a week. Blair vs Cameron: draw. Cameron vs Brown: walkover. For the first time since Harold Macmillan, the Tories have a leader whom the public will like.
Yet that is not enough; nor even essential, as Margaret Thatcher could testify. Tony Blair started off as Bambi, but then won respect, albeit on a fraudulent prospectus. David Cameron will have to do the same, without the fraud.
Given his personality, that should not be difficult. Though he is an immensely likeable fellow, there is steel at the core. Mr Cameron is a good listener (unlike Margaret Thatcher) and always a courteous one (ditto). But he knows how to make up his mind, and once he has done so there is no agonising. This is not a man who doubts his own judgement. Over the past three months, it has been interesting to observe the subtle change in his relationship with his colleagues. He does not assert himself in any overt way; there is no need to. He is the boss.
I suspect that the nature of political combat will gradually enable him to persuade the public that he is not just a pleasant young man. But there is a further problem. As Leader of the Opposition, and in comparison with Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair, Mr Cameron has a weakness. His approach to government is too grown-up.
In opposition, Tony Blair knew nothing about government, and thought it would be easy. He had managed to persuade the British people that the Tories were on the point of abolishing public expenditure. By deploying his propaganda skills as PM, he expected to convince the voters that he had reinvented it. He also assumed that it would be easy to make the public services deliver. He has spent the nine years learning how wrong he was. But it did help him to win the 1997 election.
Margaret Thatcher had been a cabinet minister for three and a half years. But in opposition, she retained some of the habits of political immaturity, especially a restless, radical disdain for many of the processes of government. Even as Prime Minister, she could often give the impression that she did not think much of the government either. In some moods, she believed in the existence of the Circumlocution Office. Four hundred thousand civil servants would arrive there at 10.30am every morning. They would complete the Times crossword, before adjourning to the Reform Club for luncheon, after which they would dictate a memorandum, arguing for masterly inactivity. They would then catch the 4.15 to Tunbridge Wells. If only she could find the building, she could solve the problem of public expenditure at a stroke.
David Cameron knows too much about the realities of government to indulge in the fantasies of opposition. When policy questions come up at Shadow Cabinet meetings, he always says: "What would we do if we were in government?" This cheers up his colleagues; they enjoy the references to government. But an opposition leader who is too close to the exigencies of governing can have difficulty in rousing the troops.
This is an especial problem for the Tory party. Modern Toryism is an uneasy coalition between economic liberals and social conservatives; between those who are at ease with the cultural changes of recent decades and those who think that the country is going to the dogs.
The latter group can make out a stronger case than many liberals would happily admit. The canine tendency always said that coloured immigration would create social problems, as would the welfare state, by encouraging dependency. It argued that if the death penalty were abolished, the murder rate would rise. To the canines, the 1960s was not the decade in which the country learnt to enjoy itself. It was the one in which the family began to disintegrate. They also insisted that Europe would increasingly prevent us from making our own laws. It is not easy to persuade the canines that they have got everything wrong.
David Cameron understands them, and does not dismiss all their anxieties. But his natural sympathies are with the young and aspirational, not with the elderly and discontented. Yet he needs them all inside his big tent.
Margaret Thatcher, whose own instincts were much more canine, had the right body language to make the malcontents believe that they had an ally in 10 Downing Street. It will be harder for David Cameron to pull off the same trick. But over the next two or three years, he will have to find a way of growing beyond the Notting Hill set nonsense - his equivalent of Bambi - and persuading the voters that he is rooted in Middle Britain, not in a smart London postal district.Reuse content