Leading article: David Cameron needs to reclaim the centre ground

Conservative messages have grown increasingly contradictory

Conservatives will be hoping for one gift above all others this Christmas: a sweeping victory in next year's general election. So is David Cameron, who earlier this month passed his fourth anniversary as the party's leader, poised to deliver for them? The results of our poll today show that doubts remain.

A majority of the public feels that a Conservative government would represent the interests of the well-off, rather than ordinary people. And for all of the present Government's unpopularity, 49 per cent of the population still reject the idea that the Tories represent an appealing alternative. These results add to the impression that, although the public are weary of Labour, they have not yet embraced the Conservatives.

Of course, the Tories' difficulties should not be exaggerated. The frequently made comparison with the run-up to the 1997 general election, when Tony Blair's Labour enjoyed sustained double-digit poll leads, is misleading. That election was a rare instance of popular enthusiasm, not only for a change of government but also the incoming party. Power has changed hands without such a popular mood and there is no reason why it should not do so again next year. The general dissatisfaction with all politicians that springs from the expenses scandal is also a factor. It would be hard to imagine any established political party enjoying 1997-style popularity in the present climate of hostility towards MPs.

But there is, nevertheless, a sense that something is missing from Mr Cameron's leadership. Though he has achieved a formidable feat in transforming his party's position in the polls since becoming leader, in the past year an impression of drift and contradiction has crept in. Mr Cameron's team showed a lack of grip during last autumn's banking collapse. And the Tories' economic policy since then has been one dimensional, focusing exclusively (until relatively recently) on the size of the deficit. There has been headline chasing on social issues too in recent months. The promises of the shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, this weekend to revisit the law on home-owners who assault burglars was an example of the sort of hasty bid for popularity that has become increasingly common from the Tories of late. Mr Cameron's slick team has also looked strangely clumsy at times. The retreat from an unsustainable policy of holding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty has antagonised the anti-European Tory grassroots. Expectations were poorly managed.

Image problems

Ironically for a party led by a former public relations executive, the Conservatives have begun to suffer from image problems too. Perceptions of privilege and entitlement swirl around Mr Cameron's team. Labour's recent attempts to reignite the "class war" could be easily dismissed as outdated nonsense, were it not for the fact that one of the Tories' most well-known policies is to scrap inheritance tax for all estates worth less than £1m a year (a move which would benefit some of the wealthiest individuals in the country at a time of economic austerity). The headlines that have surrounded the tax affairs of two prominent Conservatives, Michael Ashcroft and Zac Goldsmith, have also fed the perception that the Tories are a trade union for the rich.

What made Mr Cameron initially seem radically different from his predecessors William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard was his decision to stop talking about those old Tory obsessions of crime, Europe, immigration and tax cuts. Instead, he set reform of the public services at the heart of his agenda.

Mr Cameron's purpose was to improve state schools and hospitals, rather than help the well-off escape to the private sector. Mr Cameron spoke about issues that the Tories have traditionally ignored such as poverty and the environment. In other words, Mr Cameron made a play for the centre ground, where British elections are traditionally won and lost.

That early dynamism is still there. It can be seen in the plans of the shadow Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to free up the schools system. It is in Mr Cameron's proposals to allow the voluntary sector to play a radically expanded role in the provision of public services and yesterday's announcement on hospices. But that reforming message is being obscured by conflicting signals and regressive policies.

This is about more than getting the mood music right; it is about coherence of direction. Over the coming months, there will be siren voices telling Mr Cameron that the job of decontaminating the party's image is done and that the time has come to counter the threat of fringe parties. He would be mad to listen to them. The best present Mr Cameron could give his party this Christmas would be to drag the Conservatives back to the reformist centre.