John Rentoul: Cameron, master of the modern world

Speeding around in motorbike taxis and comfortable with computer games, the Tory leader has a handle on the future
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David Cameron has a vivid analogy for his experience of being asked to go on television to argue the party's case before the last election. It was like going over the top in the First World War, he used to say, "armed with a stick when you know that the barbed wire hasn't been cut". He reminds his colleagues of it now, partly as a form of boasting – it hasn't been like that since he became leader three years ago – and partly as a way of calming frayed nerves.

They do not admit it in public, but some members of the shadow Cabinet have been disconcerted by Gordon Brown's return from the political dead. Until the Prime Minister started saving the world in September, most leading Conservatives thought that the main challenges that they faced would arise from Brown's collapse, not from his survival. So Cameron occasionally points out that, until he became leader, the party was so used to being behind in the opinion polls that it had come to regard it as part of the natural order of things. A narrowing of the gap from an average of 19 percentage points before Lehman Brothers went bust to an average of five or six points now is a bit like those headlines that the Daily Mail used to run, more in hope than in arithmetic, in the Blair years, "Labour lead slumps", over findings that the Government's lead had been cut to, say, 12 points.

Some things about the next year are unpredictable. Based on the history since 1997, there will be 2.6 by-elections. Other things are certain. By the end of the year, for instance, it will be difficult for Alistair Darling, if he is still Chancellor, to put VAT back to 17.5 per cent. Other things are certain about the election, whenever it is: that the Conservatives led by Cameron will do better than they did when they were led by Michael Howard; that the Conservatives will gain from new constituency boundaries.

There remains a big unknown about the opinion polls at the next election, which is whether they are still overstating Labour's support. In the past four general election campaigns, Labour's share of the vote has been an average of five points lower than the level suggested by opinion polls during the campaign. But it is better from Cameron's point of view that the Tories are entering the long pre-campaign a few points ahead.

For all the mutterings in his own party – although it is fairly muted, compared with the rebellious atmosphere during Brown's first honeymoon in the summer of 2007 – about his low visibility during the economic crisis, Cameron can point out that the Conservatives are fighting the Government as equals or better. For all the wonderment over the Prime Minister's revival of fortune, the point remains that the fundamentals favour the Tories.

The big unknown about policy is whether the gap that has opened up between the two main parties favours Labour or the Tories. Brown says tax cuts and higher public borrowing will soften the recession; Cameron says they will prolong it. My esteemed colleague on the daily Independent, Andrew Grice, commented that they can't both be right. Oh, yes, they can. So far, Brown has gained, especially among Labour's working-class base, which is more sensitive to the threat of unemployment. But surely the likely outcome next year is a messy draw, with neither side able to prove what would have happened had a different policy been pursued, and Brown taking more of the blame for bad economic news the longer it lasts.

The danger for Cameron is that he is seen as uncaring, which accounts for the speed with which senior Tories have been required to retract any suggestion that the recession must be allowed to run its course. It may also account for his peculiar response to proposals announced before Christmas by James Purnell, Work and Pensions Secretary, to encourage lone parents on benefit to return to work. He described it as a "macho positioning exercise", a "shameful proposal" which he thought was "pretty sick". I do not know who he thought might be impressed by such posturing, apart from misguided middle-class lefties who are unlikely ever to vote Tory.

He seemed to make the same mistake that they make, of assuming that life on state benefit is a neutral choice, and that any attempt to impose conditions on the money is an unwarranted interference by the state in the rights of sturdy yeopersons. He would have done better, if he wanted to appeal to working-class voters worried about bearing the brunt of the recession, to pre-empt Labour's plan to bring in a higher rate of income tax at 45p in the pound over £150,000 a year.

It is interesting that Cameron is seen by most voters as further to the right of them than Brown is seen as being to the left of them. (Tony Blair, one pollster pointed out to me, was so deadly accurate in his populism that his average rating on a left-right scale placed him between the average male voter and the average female, just to the right of centre.)

But ideology isn't everything. At least as important in the personalised election campaigns that have been typical of British politics since at least Harold Macmillan's time is a general sense of "owning the future" – an American phrase of which New Labour became fond. There is Cameron's edge. He does not just ride a bike; sometimes he uses motorbike taxis, which are the fastest way to get around London (as well as being quite green). As well as analogies from the First World War, he refers to computer games. When he explained his Tomb Raider strategy to a Daily Mail dinner recently – that he has to complete level one, decontaminating the Tory brand, to be able to do level two, to argue for Tory principles – someone asked what Tomb Raider was.

When political battle resumes in the new year, Cameron will not be leading his troops on a hopeless excursion into no-man's-land. On the contrary, he is the first Tory leader for more than 20 years to be confident that the opponents' positions are not as well defended as they seem.