Leading article: A mandate for change that must not be squandered

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Britain has been without a serious party of opposition for the best part of a decade now. David Cameron's election as Tory leader gives us hope that we may, finally, get one back. As Mr Cameron demonstrated in his victory speech, he is eloquent and telegenic and appears to belong to the real world. It is now up to the new leader to extend his appeal to a wider electorate, which will require more than smiling at cameras and being personable in television studios. He must forge the Conservatives into a party fit to govern in the 21st century.

In fairness to Mr Cameron, he has made a start in this respect. His pledge to support the Prime Minister's efforts to push through reform of public services is shrewd. It will signify a refreshing change to the opportunist approach of previous Tory leaders, which has played into Tony Blair's hands. And Mr Cameron's concern for the environment, revealed in a constructive article in this paper last month and stressed in his victory speech, is also unprecedented for a Tory leader.

But it also matters what the Tories under Mr Cameron do not talk about. The party should place less emphasis on tax cuts; far better to concentrate on the inefficiency and poor productivity of public services. This is where the Government is vulnerable, as yesterday's report from the Office for National Statistics showed. For every £100 invested in the NHS, £56 has gone on higher wages or administration. Only £35 has reached front line services.

Mr Cameron must also exorcise that other Tory obsession of recent years: Europe. His early commitment to pull the Tories out of the European People's Party bloc in the European Parliament was a foolish sop to right-wing Tory opinion. He should waste no time in ditching it - along with his pledge to tilt the tax system in favour of marriage.

In fact, Mr Cameron might do well to resist pressure to come up with too many detailed policies at this stage. Many things will change in Britain between now and the next election. And as we saw in the pre-Budget report - in which Gordon Brown purloined Mr Cameron's idea of setting up some form of "national service" for school leavers - the Government will always snaffle the best Tory proposals for themselves. Mr Cameron is better advised to set in motion a series of policy reviews and hold his fire.

There are much better omens for Mr Cameron than existed for previous Tory leaders. The grassroots of the party are clearly fed up with losing elections, both at national and local level (although still one third voted for his rival, David Davis). The road block to his reforms are, in reality, an intransigent group of MPs who believe their party is the natural party of government. The claim during the leadership campaign by Mr Davis that the Tories have merely "lent power" to Labour is indicative of an extraordinarily arrogant mindset which runs through too much of the parliamentary party.

Mr Cameron must take advantage of his honeymoon and his mandate for change, just as Tony Blair did when he became Labour leader in 1994. He should force through changes in his party machinery, promote modernisers and demote the diehards. He must seek definition by attacking some sacred cows on the right. At the same time, awkwardly, the Tories need to present a united front if they hope to capitalise on Labour divisions.

These first days of leadership are critical in communicating with the public. But the key question is whether Mr Cameron can resist pressure to tack to the right as soon as his advisers panic or the polls look bleak. The test of his mettle lies some way down the road.