John Rentoul: Cameron's first year: not bad, Dave

The Tory leader's bike has wobbled a bit, but after a year in the saddle he can now be confident that the wheels won't come off
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It still seems a bit fragile. David Cameron won the Conservative leadership a year ago this week by contrasting his confident novelty with the brittle Tory-as-before, David Davis. Much of the campaign was a waiting game to see what the investigative talents of the British press could discover about what Cameron called his "normal university experience". That seemed as unwise an invitation as Gary Hart's in 1987, when the US presidential hopeful said to journalists: "Put a tail on me." They did, and caught him up to monkey business on a boat called Monkey Business with someone who wasn't his wife.

Cameron came through it, but the air of the provisional over his leadership has lingered. It all seems a bit social class AB, southern and metropolitan. It feels like a marketing campaign foisted on an indifferent nation by a tiny clique of professionals in politics, the media and public relations.

In these respects, as in so many others, the Cameron phenomenon is just like the Tony Blair equivalent of 1994-97. Only more so. At least Blair had had a job outside the political-media-PR nexus. Cameron, on the other hand, represents the coming of age of what Professor Peter Hennessy, the contemporary historian, calls the "special adviserdom". Cameron and George Osborne, his shadow chancellor, went into political backroom jobs from university, becoming special advisers to cabinet ministers, and then MPs for safe Conservative seats.

Thus Cameron, like Blair, has been carried to the threshold of power not by a social or political movement, but by a tiny band seizing control of an atrophying apparatus of an ancient political party.

For much of the past year, it has felt as if the wheels were about to come off the Cameron machine. The team kept making mistakes. In one of his last big speeches before winning the leadership on a green ticket, Cameron declared: "Britain now needs a concerted programme of road building." He promised to pull out of the centre-right group in the European Parliament and then didn't. Last week, Cameron complained that there were more people in "deep" poverty under Labour. Except that the figures did not take into account housing costs - those numbers have not changed.

But nobody notices because the geist is right for the zeit. Time Out, holdout of the right-on Londoners, named David Cameron the No 1 mover and shaker of the year. Ten years ago Blair was the Time magazine cover boy. Then, Blair's young and untested team also seemed one step from disaster and mistakes were made. But Blair's central message answered the needs of the time and he turned out to have the steel of leadership.

Does Cameron have what it takes? On the character issue, we will have to wait for the judgement of my colleagues at The Independent on Sunday, James Hanning and Francis Elliott, who are working on his biography. But my assessment of the first year is a provisional "Yes".

William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard all started as Tory leader with a timid shuffle to the centre but gave it up when it seemed not to work. Cameron's much bolder advance across the centre- ground - so far that on many issues he has gone past the Government and come out the other side - has not only worked but, by working, demonstrates to the party that it must go on. Thus Howard got a Toyota Prius (an allegedly greener hybrid car) when he was leader, and no one noticed. Cameron got on his bike and - even though it turned out that his official car followed him with his papers - everyone thinks that Cameron would be greener than Brown in power.

So much of politics is about tempo and momentum and for the past year Cameron has had them while Labour has been paralysed by what we can now call "the stable 'n' orderly".

Yet the differences between Blair 1995 and Cameron 2006 are more striking than the similarities. Under Blair, one opinion poll put Labour at 62 per cent, a 44-point lead over John Major. That puts the current Tory lead, an average of three points, in perspective.

But to those that say the Tories "should" be much farther ahead at this stage of the electoral cycle, the obvious question is: How? And the only answer is: By pretending that the fundamentals are not as strongly in Labour's favour as they are, Cameron has done about as well as it is possible to imagine a Tory leader doing against a party presiding over a fullishly employed, iPod-happy, broadband-enabled nation.

Nor has Cameron's real test formally begun. He has not yet come in range of the "big clunking fist" of Blair's unfortunate metaphor. Yet there is no reason, in what we know of the combatants, to assume that the clash will go Brown's way.

Even after a year, the genius of Cameron's positioning on green issues is still not fully appreciated. I was sceptical, thinking he would retreat at the first whiff of higher taxes on flights, or domestic fuel. But he has not. And being green helps reinforce the message that he is young, in-touch, forward-looking, and that Brown is, as Cameron put it yesterday, "very last decade".

In just a year as leader, Cameron has begun to stitch his name in the tapestry of political history. Margaret Thatcher's great achievement was to reconcile Labour to the market. Blair's great achievement has been to reconcile the Tory party to public services and equality.

Whatever the result of the next election - and the betting market predicts a hung Parliament - it could be that Cameron's great achievement will be to force the Labour Party to become truly environmentally friendly. After Brown, bring on David Miliband, the persuasive green.