Leading article: The Tories cannot afford to make another foolish choice

David Cameron recognises the need to woo the centre, which is essential if they are to win the next election
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The Independent Online

This time the race has been rather more exciting, with the field now narrowed down to two. After a poor start, David Davis is running a lively campaign. He performed well in Thursday's televised debate and is justifying his reputation for being a pugnacious character. And his opponent, David Cameron, showed his inexperience in the debate. Those who were predicting a Cameron landslide after he came top of the ballot of MPs may have been too hasty.

Yet while Mr Davis's performance was assured, his policy proposals do not bear close scrutiny. Four years away from a general election, Mr Davis proposes to cut taxes for the average British family by £1,200 each year. But who knows what state the economy will be in at that point? Proposing an exact figure now is not credible. His proposal to hold two referendums on "bringing back power" from Europe is also unrealistic. Has he considered the implications of tearing up treaties with our continental neighbours? It is a Eurosceptic fantasy to imagine that this can be easily done. The trouble with virtually all of Mr Davis's policy ideas is that they give the impression of having been formulated in a previous era. His conference speech in Blackpool failed not just due to his flat delivery, but also because of the absence of convincing content.

Mr Cameron is far superior in this respect. He is optimistic about his country, not negative. He has a more grown-up attitude on race and sexuality. He is sensible on the question of drugs too - and must stick to his guns over downgrading ecstasy. Mr Cameron is also conscious of the need for his party not to divorce its aspiration for a smaller state from the imperative of creating strong public services. He is no doctrinaire tax cutter like Mr Davis.

It is also encouraging that Mr Cameron takes the issue of climate change seriously, supporting a permanent mechanism to force through cuts in emissions. His statements on foreign policy are refreshing: it is, as he says, high time that the Tory party ditched its obsession with Zimbabwe and Gibraltar. In the light of all this, it is highly unfortunate his views on Europe are almost as regressive as those of Mr Davis.

In terms of tactics, Mr Cameron's aim of de-coupling Mr Blair from the Labour party is shrewder than Mr Davis's idea of lurching yet further to the right. Mr Cameron recognises the need for the Tories to woo the centre ground if they are to win the next election. The danger for Mr Cameron is that Mr Davis will continue to gain mileage by portraying Mr Cameron as an imitator of Tony Blair. This has the potential to do him great damage among activists. Yet Mr Cameron is also justified in pointing out that Mr Davis never shuns an opportunity to grab a headline - a classic Blairite technique.

The Tory leadership election is still very much open. The activists have a clear-cut choice. For the sake of the country, which desperately needs a strong opposition party, it is to be hoped they choose more wisely than last time.