John Rentoul: Hallucination and delusion

Apart from a plausible manner, there is almost nothing to Cameron

After the high, the low: the paranoia and self-doubt. The press hounding of David Cameron over whether he has used class A drugs has been sudden, vicious and overwhelming. The build-them-up-knock-them-down cycle has turnedfaster than ever before.

Equally sobering for the Conservatives is our opinion poll today. In a straight fight with Gordon Brown, electing David Cameron rather than David Davis or Kenneth Clarke would close the gap by a mere one percentage point. As Cameron himself said last weekend, "there is no magic wand, there is no one single thing that the party has to do". Unlike Tony Blair, who virtually chose himself as Labour leader 11 years ago because he was so obviously a precision-guided anti-Tory missile, Cameron is no silver bullet with Brown's name written on it.

At least the Cameron effect is in the right direction. And he is the only candidate with a realistic prospect of going further that way as more people are exposed to him. In any case, it may be that a single percentage point could make all the difference at the next election between a hung parliament and a fourth Tory defeat.

First, though, Cameron has to survive the next few weeks. Question Time audiences will clap anything, of course, and they clapped someone who said he was doing well in his audition for prime minister by not answering the question. But they also applauded him, surprisingly warmly, when he told them to mind their own business - mainly because he put it more politely than that, and because he has a point.

Even Question Time audiences will sometimes recognise an argument that goes beyond a one-button sound bite. Cameron rightly said that whatever "mistakes" he may have made 20 years ago should not affect anyone's judgement of his capability in high office. He said that answering one personal question would only invite others. Again, he is right, and journalists who pretend that a simple confession would be the end of the matter are wrong. Yielding to this pressure would be another step on the road via Norway, where everyone's tax returns are on the internet, to the US, where presidential candidates publish their medical records. His third point was that going further down that road would ensure that only "machines" go into politics. Right again. It is vital not just for his candidacy and the fate of the Tory party but for the health of British democracy that he hold the line against the tower of cant that is Associated Newspapers.

What was most instructive, apart from the calm and reasonable way in which Cameron fended off the drugs question, was the attitude towards him of the older women in the Question Time audience. Like Blair before him, he is dream son-in-law material. He is charming, cheerful and just a little mischievous. They almost swooned over him.

That really is all the Tories need to know, and what is most surprising about this leadership contest is that the party might even make the right decision for the first time in a decade. The excitements at Westminster last week over whether Kenneth Clarke or Liam Fox will come fourth in the first ballot are mere froth on the big wave for Cameron. Barring accidents, the names to be put to Conservative members will be Davis and Cameron. If he can hold the line on drugs, Cameron will win comfortably. Last weekend's YouGov poll of party members gave him a 66 to 27 per cent advantage. They may well be intoxicated by "one speech and a fortnight of publicity", as Clarke scathingly put it on Friday, but they are not wrong. Cameron may be an artificial high, but he remains a better choice than the others.

Unlike his rivals, his negatives can be turned around. The drugs issue does at least emphasise a generational shift. He may be too posh. He and George Osborne, his campaign manager, are the upper-class Bullingdon boys. His support in our poll is skewed towards the AB professional and managerial classes, which hardly helps a "one nation" project. But it may be that middle England is still sufficiently deferential to take to someone who looks and sounds as if born to rule. He may lack experience, but he has not yet been shown to lack political judgement. And he travels light on policy, which is only sensible. What is really surprising about the next election is how little we know about where Gordon Brown stands on policies outside the Treasury ambit. The Chancellor's most recent biographer, Robert Peston, wrote about Brown's attempt to develop the concept of Britishness but soon gave up.

Cameron has made a clever feint to divide Blair and Brown by supporting city academies, tuition fees and foundation hospitals. But those are yesterday's battles, and we have no better idea of how Brown will position himself on the coming issues, such as the extension of the principle of summary justice, than we do of what Cameron will do.

Cameron's real problem, however, is simply the scale of the task that still lies before his party. There is almost nothing to him apart from a plausible manner, a tactical adroitness and a disciplined articulacy. Those qualities are so much of what matters in modern televisual politics. But they are not all. The Conservative Party has still lost the empire of capitalist patriotism and failed to find a role. And whoever is Labour leader at the next election will benefit from a rebound from the political effects of the Iraq war, as our poll confirms. Gordon Brown can draw on substantial reserves of potential support from those who voted Liberal Democrat or who stayed at home last time.

The leadership could be coming too early for Cameron, therefore. It could be a disaster for the Conservative Party if it takes a risk with him, not because of the drugs issue but because, if it chooses the right leader for once and still loses, it may end up suffering serious side effects such as depression, hallucinations and delusions.