The Conservatives have opened their conference in Bournemouth in better shape than looked possible a year ago. By some considerable margin, David Cameron is proving a more successful leader compared with his recent predecessors. The Tories have been ahead in the polls for several months now, a significant achievement for a new leader of a party that had been trailing Labour for more than a decade.
There is still, of course, scepticism. Mr Cameron is seen as being a leader of considerable style, but the jury remains out on the issue of substance. The argument is that we know something of his values, but little of how he would translate these into action. Thus, his critics urge the leadership to unveil a more detailed policy programme this week.
But such impatience ignores the rhythms of the electoral cycle. The next election is probably two-and-a-half years away. There is no need to announce detailed policies now. If he were to do so the same critics would be attacking Mr Cameron for having nothing new to say in a year's time. At this relatively early stage in a parliament an opposition party must set out its broader values. The detailed policies can wait.
In terms of those broader values, the shift of emphasis in the Tory party has been largely positive. Mr Cameron's insistence in an upbeat speech yesterday and in interviews that tax cuts were not a priority, is eminently sensible. The recent speech on foreign policy in which he warned against slavish loyalty to the US was also politically astute and a reminder that British foreign policy can be subtler than an echo of President Bush.
In both cases, though, the apparent re-balancing of Conservative principles gives Mr Cameron the space to support tax cuts in the future and the war against Iraq now. This is a more justified cause for scepticism. As Mrs Thatcher's former spin doctor Tim Bell has noted, Mr Cameron gives the impression of change whereas it is arguable that little of substance has changed at all. Even when Mr Cameron highlights values rather than policies there are contradictions that suggest he is not clear how far he wants to change. He puts a welcome emphasis on the environment and yet his euroscepticism would prevent him making substantial progress on green issues that require international co-operation.
The more important questions revolve around the party that Mr Cameron is nudging towards the centre ground. The survey of party members in today's Independent suggests that many want a more overtly right wing set of policies. In recent weeks, leading figures in his party have called for big tax cuts. On Europe, even some of those who are pragmatic eurosceptics oppose Mr Cameron's pledge to pull out of the centre-right parliamentary group in Brussels, the EPP. The fissures are clearly visible still.
This remains Mr Cameron's biggest challenge: how to reconcile a right-wing party with a more centrist leadership and nation. If mild tensions between the leader and party are surfacing now, how much greater will they be when the party debates the outcome of the policy review next year? If a party cannot unite over broad principles it is not going to be able to do so when it ventures on to the more thorny terrain of policy making.
None of these challenges and tensions should be surprising. A party cannot change in the space of a year; it took Labour nearly two decades, after all. Mr Cameron is proving to be an imaginatively innovative leader who, as he pointed out in his speech yesterday, has already wrong-footed more experienced opponents. He has achieved a huge amount in his first year in charge. But he still has a daunting political mountain to climb.Reuse content