David Cameron arrives in Manchester today for his last party conference before he becomes prime minister, if the opinion polls, including our ComRes poll today, are any guide. It is worth noting, however, that our poll gives the Conservatives only the bare minimum that they need to secure a majority. A hung parliament is well within the margin of error – both in the statistical sense and the political one: the slightest slip by the Tories or the tiniest stiffening in Labour support and it is all to play for.
With that qualification, the prevailing wind is plainly at Cameron's back, while Gordon Brown is going to have to fight every inch of the way into a bitter headwind. So now is the time to ask, as we did in our poll, what David Cameron really stands for. Roughly half of all voters still feel that they do not know, and this has not changed for the past year or more. We suspect that this is not so much the result of evasiveness, or the absence of definition, although there is some of that, but of presenting different well-defined images to different audiences.
Thus Mr Cameron presented a list of 10 "key pledges" to The Sun last week as a thank-you for its spiteful sabotage of Mr Brown's speech: not one of them related to the environment. Greg Clark, the Tory climate change spokesman, in his interview with The Independent on Sunday today, is forced into the feeble defence that green policies are so central to the party's thinking that they do not need to be mentioned. There is, therefore, a contrast between the early tree-hugging, hoodie-hugging Dave, and the broken-Britain, Eurosceptic Mr Cameron of the past year or so. There is no necessary contradiction between the two, of course, but there is a tension, and it is not surprising that so many people find it hard to be sure what Mr Cameron believes in.
The truth is that he is more of an instinctive Conservative than Tony Blair was ever tribal Labour. James Hanning, Mr Cameron's co-biographer, disputes the caricature of the Tory leader as a mere public-relations man in his portrait today, but describes someone comfortable with and proud of his deep Conservative roots. And if his policies, and his attack-dog shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, have reverted to more familiar Conservative territory as the election approaches, suddenly Mr Cameron finds himself this week in the even more familiar territory – fighting for his credibility on European policy, the graveyard of Conservative prime ministers. He may be a reformed Thatcherite, but the issue of Europe lights up vividly the extent to which his party is as right wing as ever. He may or may not have changed, but the Tory party certainly has not.
Yesterday's Conservative Home poll of party members found that a mere 16 per cent of them are prepared to accept the Lisbon Treaty, which is, after last week's referendum in Ireland, almost certain to come into effect before a Tory government could be elected. Forced to choose between the Lisbon model, possibly with Tony Blair as president, and withdrawal from the European Union, it must be suspected that the 39 per cent of Conservatives who currently want to pull out would increase. It is quite possible that, if Mr Cameron were elected, a majority of his party members would by then want Britain out of the EU altogether.
If it were not for a media narrative that has decided that King Gordon is dead and is already chanting Long Live King Dave, Mr Cameron would have a difficult conference this week. (That narrative is complicated, but not contradicted by a subplot of the internal dynamics of the Murdoch family, as Rupert's biographer Michael Wolff writes today.) Not just on the issue of Europe, but also on the economic crisis, Mr Cameron should be being asked the most searching questions about his suitability for the highest office. There ought to be little doubt that Mr Cameron and George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, made the wrong judgement about how to respond to the credit crunch, opposing measures that have been vindicated not just by Nobel prize-winning economists but by events.
This week is a chance for Mr Cameron to blow away a little more of the mist that shrouds his leadership. Voters of a liberal or even Labour tendency, who may have been intrigued by the early Decontamination Dave, should now be demanding further and better particulars. This week in Manchester, Mr Cameron and the Conservative Party should know that millions of voters are looking to them and saying, in effect, Go on: convince us.