David Cameron's leadership of his party is often compared with Tony Blair's during the period up to the 1997 election. By implication Cameron makes the comparison himself, deploying the familiar language of change and modernisation. Most Blairite commentators in the media also tend to accept the similarities, moving supportively from what they regard as one modernising leader to another.
The comparison is one of the most misleading in British politics. As someone who worked for Blair observed to me recently, if Cameron had wanted to modernise his party in a similar fashion he would have dropped his plans for a cut in inheritance tax, proposed sweeping tax cuts for the poor and the re-nationalisation of the railways. All three would be in line with a genuinely modern centre-right party and at the same time have exposed weaknesses in Labour's current position.
Cameron has made no such moves. Instead he heads for the election leading a party that proposes tax cuts for the well-off and married couples, massive spending cuts whether or not Britain is out of recession, withdrawal from the social chapter and a renegotiation of the Lisbon Treaty.
The trajectory of Cameron's leadership is much closer to another former leader. He might have tried to learn from the New Labour guidebooks on how to win elections, but inadvertently he has followed more closely the course adopted by one of his own recent predecessors.
After securing the Conservative leadership in 1997 William Hague set out to modernise his party. In his first conference speech Hague declared repeatedly that it was time to "move on" from the party's recent preoccupations and reach out to the wider electorate. He warned his audience that the Conservatives were perceived as uncaring and they must act to change the perception. He barely mentioned Europe, beyond a few modest, evasively unifying sentences on the euro. A couple of weeks earlier Hague became the first Tory leader to visit the Notting Hill Carnival to illustrate his ease with cosmopolitan Britain.
In his first conference speech as leader Cameron stressed the need for change too. His equivalent excursion was a visit to a Norwegian glacier to be photographed with a pack of huskies. In both cases the policy implications of these visits were less clear than the potency of the symbolism.
Both sought to modernise their parties. Hague aimed to massively increase the membership as one way of recruiting a wider range of candidates. As much as possible the selection of candidates more recently has been controlled centrally in order to ensure more women and ethnic minorities become MPs. In both cases the results were mixed.
In terms of policy the resolve of the two leaders to move on from their party's past and their own previously strongly held beliefs were tested by events. Hague wrongly misread the government's chaotic announcement in the autumn of 2001 that it would not join the euro during the first term. He thought Blair and Gordon Brown were trying to be more Euro-sceptic than the Conservatives and announced in a panic that his party would never sign up to the single currency under any circumstances. This re-ignited tensions over Europe after a period of calm and was the prelude to a new obsession that ran up to the 2001 election. Cameron declared during the 2005 leadership contest that the Tories would withdraw from the centre-right grouping in the European parliament, partly to attract the support of eurosceptic MPs, when he almost certainly would have won without making such a commitment. Once again Europe has become more of an issue as the next election moves into view.
On the economy both moved away from their original determined pragmatism, yielding to internal pressure. The fuel dispute in the autumn of 2000 caused an explosive row between Hague and his shadow chancellor, Michael Portillo. Hague wanted to gain some immediate popularity by calling for a substantial cut in petrol duty. Portillo argued wisely that such a move would be seen as irresponsible and therefore counter-productive. Hague prevailed and soon announced a range of tax cuts, largely for the better-off voters in Middle England.
Cameron and George Osborne began their reign by openly declaring they would not follow a similar pattern. Yet within a year, fearing an early election, they proposed the near abolition of inheritance tax. Later the recession gave them an excuse to renege on their commitment to support the Government's already tight spending plans, a U-turn greeted enthusiastically by their supporters and the right-wing commentators who had also cheered Hague's tax cuts. As with Hague's move rightwards, the realignment with traditional support is bought at a cost. Suddenly there are indications that parts of the wider electorate do not share an appetite for recovery-threatening austerity. The most vivid example of how Hague had failed to move on from his first conference speech came with his pre-election address. He warned that Britain was in danger of becoming a "foreign land". To his surprise the media gave the speech the thumbs down.
Cameron would never be as crudely unsubtle, but in his equivalent pre-election conference address he launched an indiscriminate attack on "big government", blaming the state for more or less everything including the financial crisis when even most of those on the right admit too little government rather than too much was the cause. To Cameron's surprise parts of the media were far from thrilled. He had not moved on very much either.
Both Hague and Cameron are outstanding parliamentary performers, witty and quick to exploit the weaknesses of political opponents. Both are calm under fire. Both started to shift their positions when they appointed press secretaries to advise them on the media. Amanda Platell urged Hague to adopt more right-wing and populist policies. Andy Coulson has sometimes advised Cameron to do the same on issues such as immigration, crime and tax cuts.
There are of course differences. Cameron is a warmer, more agile personality and has been able to assemble an incomparably stronger team. For nearly all his leadership he has been ahead in the polls, a success that creates confidence and means a less critical media. Tonally Cameron has a wider range, whereas at this stage of the parliament Hague was desperately seeking to retain the support of his core vote, worrying that the Conservatives could perform even worse than they had in 1997. Even so the similarities are much closer than those between Cameron and Blair en route to his 1997 landslide.
Why did voters give Hague the thumbs down while being more supportive of Cameron? The answer has little to do with the Conservatives and virtually everything to do with Labour. In 2001 voters were still willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt. Since 2005 Cameron has had a free ride, with the Blair/Brown battles in the first half of the parliament and then Gordon Brown's various travails, including two attempted coups and a recession, a gift for any opposition. But the reason why polls show a slight narrowing of the gap now is that in the end there is little enthusiasm for the policies that Cameron and Hague espoused in 2001 and advocate now.
Both became leaders at a young age and with extremely limited experience. Being Leader of the Opposition is the second toughest job in British politics and makes epic demands few can meet. If, in marked contrast to Hague, Cameron wins big it will be because a dysfunctional Labour Government let him.