Steve Richards: These are heady times for the Tories, but their new leader faces a huge challenge

Cameron is in the contorted position of knowing his party must change yet still supporting vote-losing policies
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David Cameron is a more fully realised political figure than mythology suggests. We know that he served his political apprenticeship as an adviser to Norman Lamont in the Treasury and Michael Howard at the Home Office. As a result, he has more experience of how government works than either Neil Kinnock or Tony Blair when they became leaders of the Opposition.

In different ways, Mr Kinnock and Mr Blair suffered from not knowing what government was like. For both of them, the prospect of power was something of an intimidating mystery. The frightening gulf between power and aspiration is one of the reasons why Mr Kinnock never made it and why the Labour government even now has the air of an impostor, disturbing the natural order of things. Mr Cameron is fortunate that already he has had a whiff of power.

On the whole, he shares his former ministerial masters' views. From his public statements, it is clear he agrees with Lord Lamont's unswerving Euroscepticism and Michael Howard's views on tackling crime. Recently, he has argued for the reintroduction of selection in secondary schools and has expressed interest in a flat tax.

At the hustings meeting of Conservative MPs held before the first ballot earlier this week, the MP John Bercow asked Mr Cameron if he disagreed with the party's policy on immigration put before voters at the last election. To Mr Bercow's disappointment, Mr Cameron expressed support for the existing policy. Mr Cameron is in the contorted position of knowing his party must change but is supportive of many vote-losing policies.

The aspirant leader has disowned only one specific proposal from the campaign last May, the proposal to subsidise private patients. His reason for doing so is illuminating. Mr Cameron has said that the policy made the party appear as if it cared more for the privileged. The perception concerned him more than any ideological objections. This is where Mr Cameron has shown an almost dazzling genius in recent weeks. He has freshened up the way his party is perceived. Yesterday, he was filmed cycling from his home to Westminster, a gloriously artful piece of political choreography that made me, a fellow cyclist, almost want to vote Conservative on the spot.

Mr Cameron's early leadership would feel as fresh as his candidacy. There would be much more emphasis on the environment, the revival of inner cities, and public services. The shadow cabinet would be the most formidable since 1997. His style at Prime Minister's Question Time would be less adversarial, at least while facing Mr Blair.

One of the oddities of the broader political situation is that while Downing Street is viewing the current contest with intense interest, Mr Blair will not face the winner at the next general election. Already, Mr Cameron is focusing on Gordon Brown as the more relevant political target, alert to the ongoing tensions between the PM and Chancellor and focusing on ways of reinforcing perceptions that Mr Brown's premiership will represent a shift to the left.

Although he is still not leader, there is as much interest in Mr Cameron as there is in Mr Blair and Mr Brown. Last Saturday, Mr Blair made an important speech at a left-of-centre conference. The speech has been the source of some tension within the Government. I will return to it at some point, but at the moment no one is noticing. All eyes are on Mr Cameron. Messrs Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard never commanded such attention, even when they were firmly established as leaders.

What is so extraordinary is that Mr Cameron's pitch is no different to that made by the forlorn trio of predecessors. In effect, he is stating that the policies and values are fine, it is the party and the way the policies are presented that must change.

Mr Hague began his leadership by being more inclusive, attending the Notting Hill Carnival and wearing a baseball cap. Mr Duncan Smith issued an instruction that his party must talk less about Europe and more about poverty and the public services. The shadow cabinet were sent to Sweden and to work in soup kitchens. Mr Howard's opening speech as leader proclaimed that there must be no "no go" areas for a modern Conservative Party. But in each case, the leaders turned their backs on the modernising symbolism and made a desperate pitch for the core vote.

Almost certainly, Mr Cameron would be different, partly because he is fourth in line. He has witnessed the mistakes made by his three predecessors and the dreadful consequences for his party. In this sense, he has had a similar apprenticeship to Mr Blair who learnt much from the travails of Messrs Foot, Kinnock and Smith. Mr Blair was also the fourth leader of his party to seek power from the wilderness of opposition.

But the incomparably more experienced Mr Blair acquired the leadership in a far rosier political context. The Conservative government was already falling apart in 1994, and the Labour Party was ready to act in any way that would bring about victory.

What we have learnt about the Conservatives over the past few weeks is that they are not similarly hungry for power. A third of the parliamentary party remains gripped by Europe, the main reason why Ken Clarke was rejected with misjudged haste. Yesterday, more than half the MPs voted for the two candidates on the right and some were already venting their anger on the "liberals" around Mr Cameron.

Only Mr Clarke and David Willetts have shown a recognition that the party's policies must change as well as its image. During his brief and impressive candidacy, Mr Clarke warned that cutting public spending would not be easy, and therefore promising big tax cuts was reckless and lacked credibility. Mr Willetts dares to point out that policies define a party's image. Most of the party is in denial about this. Over the next few weeks, Mr Cameron will have to articulate a message that appeals to an ageing party membership. The members show no appetite for an overhaul of policies either.

If Mr Cameron wins, he would be much closer to the position of Neil Kinnock when he became Labour's leader in 1983. He is a young figure who knows his party must change, but is supportive of policies that have defined the party in recent years. Like Mr Kinnock, Mr Cameron faces a government that is still hungry for power. This does not mean the same bleak fate necessarily awaits Mr Cameron. But in these heady times, for the young leader in waiting it shows the magnitude of the task ahead.