John Rentoul: Cameron has it all. But he's got one big problem: he's a Tory

Cameron's speech to Demos was a virtuoso production
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What he said was: "Character trumps policy detail every time." It was an unexpected insight into the strategic thinking behind the Cameron coup. People who know Cameron realised some time ago that he had the personal qualities for leadership. This had nothing to do with what he believed in. When I first heard his name mentioned as a possible future Tory leader, 14 years ago, he was one of "Patten's puppies", protégés of Chris Patten, the Tory chairman. (Another was Steve Hilton, now Cameron's chief adviser.) Insofar as he had private opinions, they were always - like the early Tony Blair's - entirely conventional for the party at the time. As he evolved from pink-cheeked Thatcherite to technocratic Howardist he and his friends nurtured a growing conviction about how a centre-ground strategy might work. This was not a matter of policy but of positioning - and above all of "character".

How right his friends were about him! His performances have been stylistically flawless. Last week's Questions to the Prime Minister was again tone-perfect. He teased Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, for appearing to put the blame on the Prime Minister for the Government's one-vote defeat on the Religious Hatred Bill the night before. "An interesting career move, to say the least." It was nonsense, but it oozed confidence, wit and mild disdain. Character certainly trumps policy detail on the floor of the House of Commons. He is very good, too, at television interviews. He can say that he is interested in the "quality of life not just the quantity of money" for the 94th time and still make it sound as if he just thought of it. He can do speeches. Last week's, to Demos, the trendiest think tank, was a virtuoso production, completely Blairite in structure. Paying his audience the compliment of assuming that they could follow an argument over half an hour, he set up a classic false antithesis. There were "the well-intentioned cheerleaders on the right" - he did not name Norman Tebbit - who argued that Conservatives should trust the people and not the state. Then there were those - he did name Gordon Brown - who say "only the state can guarantee fairness". This, "pressed to its conclusion" (that is, distorted to within an inch of its life) leads to "monolithic state provision of services". Cameron preferred a middle way.

In Commons debates, media interviews and speeches he follows the Blair rather than the Brown template. Brown is a cut-and-paste politician. He thinks deeply about political strategy, but when he has decided what his position should be he tends not to present an argument but a series of statements, broken up with striking but disconnected quotations and fixed to a wall of statistics. Like Blair, Cameron sometimes borrows from this approach, but always with the lightest of touches. In his Demos speech, for example, he said that, "for ease of dealing with bureaucracy, we are now just below the Dominican Republic, 20th in the world". Just the kind of cod fact that Blair or Brown might have used 10 years ago.

It is a mistake, however, to say that Cameron is simply copying Blair. Blair can "do" modern politics better than anyone since Margaret Thatcher; Cameron can "do" it better than anyone since Blair. Good politicians learn from each other, but if they only copied they would be Rory Bremner. The secret of Cameron's success is that he, like Thatcher and Blair, excels at the skills that are essential to politics.

Brian Walden last week explained what might be called the Gove strategy: "Voters don't always bother studying policies, they get a general impression of the party's programme by watching the leader." So a leader "must spend his time coming across as a fundamentally nice person. Knowing the details of the tax system is less important than being a Good Dad and smiling a lot."

Character trumps policy detail, in fact. But Gove added to his original sentence, saying that character means "brand, in commercial terms". It is the sort of marketing terminology that makes people suspicious and which politicians are usually wise to avoid. But we should be grateful to Gove for his honesty: ithelps explain why Cameron has not been more successful.

"Brand" is not quite the same as personal character, important as that is. It means the reputation of the leader and the party together. Cameron is still held back by what marketing calls the "reputational issues" of the Tory party. That is why Philip Gould, Blair's marketing genius, reported to the Cabinet last month that Cameron's "bounce" in the opinion polls had been less than 5 percentage points. He urged ministers to avoid personal attacks and remind voters of Cameron's party instead.

The Tory strategy is the equal and opposite - to associate Cameron with the party ("Cameron's Conservatives") in the hope that the balm of Cameron will neutralise the Tory poison and not the other way round.

Gove is therefore right that people tend not to vote on policy detail, but there is more to "character" than coming across as nice. Cameron's advisers set much store on Brown's gurning jaw and syncopated smile. They tend to agree with Labour backbenchers that the sooner the Chancellor takes over the better. Cameron's people think the voters will be repelled; Labour MPs think they will be attracted. I think that the evidence favours the latter. Brown has a huge reputational advantage over Cameron, because, although voters do not take much interest in policy detail, they want to vote for someone they trust to get the policy detail right. Brown has an unprecedented record of success as Chancellor. In the end, Michael Gove might find that command of policy detail trumps a character that is easy on the eye and ear.

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