The Conservative Party has never fallen in love with David Cameron. Today's ConservativeHome survey of Tory members for The Independent shows that he is only eighth in a 15-person league table of centre-right politicians. Asked to say who most resembles their own politics they chose Margaret Thatcher. But it's not just a rose-tinted phenomenon. The PM also lags behind Boris Johnson and William Hague as leading Conservatives who stir the blood of the grassroots.
The party's relationship with Cameron has always been contractual. When he campaigned for the Tory leadership in 2005 his campaign slogan did not point a thrice-beaten party to some great set of principles or ideology. No. It was simple and explicit: "Change to win."
While Cameron may still not be their ideal Tory leader the grassroots have, nonetheless, warmed to him since he went to Brussels and became the first British Prime Minister to veto an EU Treaty. Ninety-two per cent of party members think he was correct to say "no". Seventy per cent think the act was the best moment of his time in government. More than half think it marked the beginning of a new era in our politics – in which Britain will become more independent of the EU.
At the end of last month, 73 per cent of Conservative Party members were satisfied with Cameron's performance and 28 per cent were dissatisfied. Today 82 per cent are satisfied and just 18 per cent are dissatisfied. But since the veto, Cameron's ratings have improved across the whole electorate. Party members hope the PM has noticed voters' appetite for straight-talking Euroscepticism. More significantly they hope he has noticed a wider pattern.
Again and again during his time as Tory leader, Cameron's political position has strengthened after he has acted in recognisably conservative ways. His ratings, for example, soared after his 2007 promise to abolish inheritance tax; after last year's full throttle campaign against electoral reform; and again after the summer's tough talk on the riots.
Policy positions that didn't help the Tories at the 2001 and 2005 general elections – when Tony Blair was at the height of his political powers or when the economy was strong – have become potent in these very different times. I don't recommend abandonment of Cameron's commitment to the NHS or to the global aid budget.
He was right to modernise the Conservative Party in significant ways. What his advisers should note, however, is that the age of austerity is a deeply conservative period and that there is currently a bigger appetite for conservatism than there has been for many years.
The writer is editor of ConservativeHome.com
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