Editorial: Survival kit for Mr Cameron

He saw himself as the heir to Blair, but had not done the spadework in Opposition

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The Independent on Sunday is no natural bedfellow of the Conservative Party. Back in the optimistic days of 2005, we did dare to think, though, that David Cameron might be different. Here was a young leader who seized his chance in barnstorming style, saying then, and in the months that followed, many of the things that a modern, liberal newspaper and its readers believed. He was notably strong on green issues, promoted a sensible approach on crime and immigration, and we could even agree there was something in his Big Society and his emphasis on our responsibilities to one another.

The sceptics suggested this was all part of a clever detoxification strategy. Then, as Gordon Brown flourished in the first days of his leadership in 2007, Mr Cameron panicked. He tacked rightward, and those sceptics had reason to believe that normal service was being resumed. Mr Cameron's subsequent failure to secure an outright majority against one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers, perversely, gave him a lifeline back to the centre. His speedy and generous approach to the Lib Dems the morning after electoral deadlock showed some of his early boldness, and the coalition, it seemed, could free him from the worst of his party's swivel-eyed tendency and allow him to parade his more moderate instincts.

Austerity aside, his early days at No 10 were rather refreshing: he was chairman of the board, let the ministers get on with their jobs, and made sure he read the kids' bedtime story or had a night out with Sam. But although he saw himself as the heir to Blair, he had never quite done the spadework the Labour leader had in Opposition. And when he lost his two key lieutenants at No 10, he was in deeper difficulty: his blue skies thinker, Steve Hilton, waltzed off to the US in apparent frustration, while Andy Coulson, a highly disciplined and effective communicator, left for reasons that should have been foreseen before he was appointed.

The catastrophe over Andrew Lansley's health reforms were the most shocking result, but there were plenty of U-turns elsewhere as the laissez-faire attitude to his cabinet colleagues proved counter-productive. Mr Cameron scrambled to take stronger control, but with a weaker team. He has also kept listening to George Osborne, whose Budget supplied weeks of political embarrassment, and whose fingerprints were all over a confused reshuffle. And, all his bets are on his Chancellor's economic policies, which show scant sign of working.

So Mr Cameron goes to his party's conference in Birmingham in something of a mess: the modernisers are up in arms, the right-wingers don't trust him, Boris reckons he could do a better job, and the pragmatists think he's failed the competence test.

Into this steps Jeremy Hunt, who should have been fired as Culture Secretary over his links to News International but instead was promoted to Health Secretary. Amusing, maybe, that he favours homeopathic medicine; toxic for him to believe that the abortion limit should be halved to 12 weeks, citing evidence no health professional recognises, on the eve of Mr Cameron's most testing conference.

Our advice, Prime Minister? Reclaim the centre ground. Become the moderniser you once looked to be; make that your philosophical anchor and develop coherent centrist policies. You will never win an election from the right. And be brave, or else be a one-term PM, and a one-term PM who achieved nothing.

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