John Rentoul: He's young, he's bright, he's Blair reborn. And the Tories know it

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The Independent Online

You can tell he is the same person, though, not just because he says the same kind of things, but from the essential traits of his personality. Just like the old Tony Blair, the new one is more right-wing than he lets on. Just like the old one, the new one is slippery on aspects of his personal history about which he feels insecure. The old Blair denied that he had been a member of CND; the new one said that he had been an MP for five years until it was pointed out that this involved rounding up from four years and four months. David Cameron, suddenly the favourite to win the Conservative leadership, has nearly completed the transformation.

We are now in the remarkable situation where, assuming there are no shocking personal revelations to come about the three leading candidates, David Cameron and David Davis are most likely to go through to the final ballot of party members - which Cameron is likely to win. I thought Kenneth Clarke won the warmest applause in Blackpool last week as a form of apology: they love him dearly, and they know he's good, but selling out to Europe is one thing that they will not contemplate. And Cameron will win that run-off because, as with Blair, the party will be told by opinion polls and the media that he is a winner.

The success with which Cameron carries off the regeneration lies above all in the fact that he comes across as nice. That was Blair's secret, and that is why David Davis failed his audition for the part: his use of Blair's language seemed grafted on, an artificial, calculated construction. That is one of the unfairnesses of politics. Davis's pitch for "the many, not the privileged few" may be more authentic than Cameron's, but Cameron seems to mean it because he does niceness so well.

Just like the early Blair, Cameron comes across as a sensible member of the human race. And he is also the high-risk, exciting candidate. Just as the journalist Hugo Young once described Blair as the "alarming" candidate for the Labour leadership in 1994, there is a whiff of danger, and of exhilaration, in the air around Cameron. Partly, this is because he has risen to contention even faster than Blair did. Blair had been an MP for 11 years, a member of the shadow cabinet for six, and had shadowed one of the great offices of state, the home secretary, before he ran for his party's leadership.

Cameron's student life is only now being subjected to the kind of intensive journalistic scrutiny that might have developed over the years of a more conventional ascent. So far, he has passed two important tests. He dealt with the drugs question when asked about it at a fringe meeting in Blackpool. He had had "a normal university experience", he said. He was "enough of a human" to have done lots of things at university, but "too much of a politician" to discuss them. Private Eye once described Tony Blair as "the only member of the Labour Party a normal person could ever vote for"; I suspect Cameron's answer put him in a similar category.

The other test that he passed last week was the Michael Crick Newsnight profile. At a similar point in Blair's career, six weeks before the Labour leadership election, he survived the ordeal of the tenacious Crick digging up old documents and interviewing people from his school and university days. Cameron even emerged relatively unscathed from Crick's asking why he had joined a gentlemen's club, White's, that does not admit women.

Allied with niceness, an easy confidence and a sharp mind can escape pitfalls that would trap lesser politicians. The important point about Cameron's Oxford career is that he got a first - along with his contemporary, Ed Balls, the MP for Normanton and right-hand person to his likely adversary at the next general election, Gordon Brown. Cameron is the new Blair, therefore, but there are two important problems with that from the Conservatives' point of view. One is the fact that Cameron is - as Blair was - more right-wing than he appears.

He has been good at avoiding policy specifics, so far, and at endorsing the sort of Labour policies that make the Labour Party the most uncomfortable. He says the right things privately about being prepared, in his push for the centre ground, to lose some of the Tory core vote to challengers from the right such as the UK Independence Party. But his political origins are on the Thatcherite right, as are those of most of his associates. Until as recently as last week, for instance, Cameron's "chief of staff" was Alex Deane, a student debating champion so far out to the libertarian right that he scandalised the Daily Mail by asking why polygamy should be illegal: "If I want to marry more than one person, why should the state stop me?"

True, some of Blair's team were reformed Bennites, but his own ideological starting point - though he concealed it - was right-wing Labour. The point being that Blair's tendency to the right pushed the Labour Party towards the centre; if Cameron tends to the right, it will pull the Tories away. We simply do not know, until he takes over, how energetically or successfully Cameron will drive the party towards the centre ground against its instincts, and possibly his own.

The other big difference between Blair 1994 and Cameron 2005 is that the Conservatives now are not in a similar position to Labour then. When John Smith died, Labour was already on course to win the coming election. Whatever the arguments at the time between modernisers and traditionalists, the destruction of the Tory reputation for economic competence by the ERM débâcle meant that the real choice was between a comfortable majority under Smith or a landslide under Blair. No such luxury is - yet - available to the Conservatives today. As things stand, they face the choice between losing badly under Davis or, at the very best, a hung parliament under Cameron.

So, Cameron is a striking fit as the regeneration of the time-defying hero of the long-running Blair serial. And his election as Tory leader guarantees the continuation of the epic struggle between the Doctor and his arch enemy, the Master, as played by Gordon Brown. But the story still may not end in the way that the Tory scriptwriters hope.