Leading article: Cracks in the Tory façade

Say what you will about David Cameron – and in the past this paper has said a great deal – he is no one's fool. He realises to a greater extent than many politicians the space that has opened up between the people and the political classes. His proposal, leaked last week, to curb ministerial pay if the Tories get elected suggests that he, unlike Alan Duncan, has some notion of how people feel about the pay and perks of ministers when they take the brunt of recession.

Yet, given that the next election is less than nine months away, what are we to make of this paper's revelations today that Mr Cameron has taken no fewer than 60 private jet journeys since becoming party leader, often for routes that could perfectly easily have been taken by rail or car? It looks bad. And when we consider that these private jet journeys were effectively gifts from Tory donors and businessmen, it looks a good deal worse. We are left with the impression of public-relations ineptitude at best, hypocrisy at worst.

The Tories have gone to great lengths to emphasise their green credentials, but recourse to private jets is at odds with all that. It reminds us of Mr Cameron's early misjudgment in broadcasting the fact that he cycles to work, only for journalists to discover that a car followed close behind with his briefing papers. Private jet journeys are worse; they are a way for important people to escape the queues, delays and inconvenience that attend travel for ordinary folk; they are a signifier of a way of life far removed from that of most of us. That jars, especially given that Mr Cameron plays down his rather grand background and that of his wife – remember the Cheerios cereal on the family breakfast table when the cameras dropped in – when he is on public view.

Of course there is nothing illegal in taking lifts from businessmen, but Mr Cameron should know that for some Tory donors the loan of a jet is a trivial price to pay for the knowledge that the party leader is in a small way beholden to them. There is always some kind of trade-off, usually implicit, between favours granted and favours received. Indeed, one of Mr Cameron's benefactors is Andrew Cook, a businessman who likes to suggest that he has helped shape Tory energy proposals. As it happens, some elements of the policy, such as high-speed rail links, are those of which this paper approves, but what matters is that Tory policy should not be shaped by people with a commercial interest in the outcome who happen to have made themselves useful to the party leader.

None of this would matter if Mr Cameron showed a surer touch in other respects. He had, for once, to scramble last week to catch up with the Prime Minister in championing the NHS against the odious campaign against it in the US, part of an effort to discredit President Obama's healthcare reforms. Embarrassingly, the American right was given comfort in its efforts by a Tory MEP, Daniel Hannan, who should have been shot down instantly by his party leader after appearing on Fox TV.

Mr Cameron also let Alan Duncan off lightly when he was exposed as an arrant hypocrite on the subject of MPs' expenses. And Mr Duncan, remember, is the man who represents the Tories on the Commons committee that decides MPs' allowances and represents the party on the issue of expenses. Mr Cameron appears to have one rule for off-message MPs such as Anthony Steen whom he finds uncongenial, another for personal associates like Alan Duncan. That smells bad, too.

Of course, Mr Cameron can take comfort from the fact that if elections are not won by the opposition so much as lost by the government, Gordon Brown is busy doing his work for him. But he wants something more than victory by default. He wanted to persuade us that the Tory party has changed. Yet Project Cameron is betrayed at every turn by its own champions. Lord Mandelson – who has come very well out of his week as the Prime Minister's deputy – has let it be known that George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, bragged that "he had got away with" a speech about the Tories being the party of fairness. Got away with it? Quite apart from the error of indiscretion anywhere near the wiliest man in government, this suggests a mindset that is hardly at ease with egalitarianism.

Is the Tory party, at heart, any better than it was? Mr Cameron is in dress rehearsal for government. On his present showing, he will have to do better than this before the nation will feel happy about voting him into power, as opposed to voting Gordon Brown out of it.