Editorial: The unleadable Conservative Party

It was depressing that Mr Cameron returned to the 'piffle' of the broken society

When Grant Shapps, the Conservative chairman, is reduced to saying that public disagreements over policy are evidence that the party is "fizzing with ideas", we know the party is in trouble. The Prime Minister sought to calm that trouble with a forceful restatement of his central message in his speech yesterday, but succeeded only in prompting us to wonder: Are the Conservatives ungovernable?

David Cameron's address was in two halves. The good half was the "aspiration nation" theme. He focused on the rungs on the ladder to a better life for young people: family, school, higher education, jobs and home ownership. This allowed him to promise faster adoption (and worrying less about ethnic matching), apprenticeships and start-up business loans for young people. The bad half of the speech was the appeasement of the activists' yearning for a better yesterday.

It was depressing that Mr Cameron returned to the pessimism of the "broken society" – a phrase that Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister's most serious rival, has rightly described as "piffle". And it was, frankly, childish for Mr Cameron to claim that "narrative history" is back at the heart of the curriculum: "Kings, Queens, battles, dates – our island's story in all its glory."

His claim that "dozens" more free schools are in the pipeline hardly sounded like the radical education revolution that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, promises. Our report today, that three of the first seven Ofsted inspections of free schools found that they "require improvement", should remind us that schools reform is hard and slow, and should warn politicians against over-claiming.

Mr Cameron's desperation is understandable, however. Tory MPs are so gloomy about their prospects in 2015 that Theresa May, not one of the Cabinet's obvious high fliers, has been talked up as a contender for his job, and speculation about Mr Johnson's return to the House of Commons runs unabated.

Tomorrow, the Prime Minister will pay the price of having got too close to Rupert Murdoch before the last election, as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg combine to embarrass him in the name of the victims of press excesses. Yet, far from praising Mr Cameron for having done everything he could to win last time, many in his party blame him for failing to win outright.

Our ComRes opinion poll today should remind the Tories that voters regard Mr Cameron more favourably than they do his party, or Ed Miliband. Yet much of the party is trapped in a world of its own, in which it believes that a more assertive celebration of "our island's story" (that is, less Europe and less immigration) would be all that it takes to win a Conservative majority next time.

The party's troubles run deep indeed. They go back to Margaret Thatcher and the alternative history of her golden age, believed by so many Tories, in which she was right wing and won elections. It is a mythical history that ignores the division of the left in her time, and her deep unpopularity at the end, brought about by her "right-wing" policy of the poll tax.

Mr Cameron recognises, as he made as clear as he dared after Ukip eclipsed the Tories in the Eastleigh by-election, that general elections are won in the centre ground. That was the lesson learned by William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. But his party shows every sign of refusing to accept that reality.