'It says something about the nature of Cameron's coterie that it views the leadership campaign as a mock-heroic game where the future of the universe is at stake'

The Etonian pretender to the Tory throne is fiercely resisting attempts to nail down his beliefs. Th

There is an entertaining parlour game played by the Notting Hill set Tories who surround the leadership front-runner David Cameron. They imagine themselves as members of the Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien's group of brave underdogs out to save Middle Earth (for which read Middle England) from the forces of Mordor (it even sounds like Labour). It is an absorbing pastime once you get started: Cameron is Frodo, the fresh-faced, wide-eyed hobbit driven to oppose the evil Sauron, the dark lord of Mordor (Gordon Brown), successor to the fallen angel Morgoth (Tony Blair).

After a while, the cast of characters begins to fit into place. Gandalf, the good wizard, according to one Cameron supporter who has played the game, is Oliver Letwin, the senior figure in the group, dispensing wise counsel to the young hot-headed heroes. Closest to Frodo are his trusted hobbit allies, Merry and Pippin - shadow chancellor George Osborne and puckish former Times journalist Michael Gove. Last is the apparently bumbling but ultimately heroic Sam Gamgee, whose role is played to perfection by Boris Johnson.

And Gollum, the former hobbit deformed out of all recognition by his desire to possess the ring of power? David Davis himself.

It says something about the nature of Cameron's coterie that it views the Conservative leadership campaign as something of a game, a mock-heroic game where the future of the universe is at stake. The analogy can be taken too far, but the choice of children's fantasy is no coincidence: Tolkien's world is deeply conservative, where the true moral order of the world is established after a dark period of misrule.

Like any good adventure story, the quest has already taken some picaresque twists and turns, and our central character has encountered a series of trials to test his hero status. Starting as a hopeless case, Camerodo's adventure took a spectacular turn for the better after his party conference speech of 4 October. He has since weathered potentially damaging questions about drug taking and a battle with Davis on Question Time in which he was bettered by his opponent. He remains on top in most - but not all - polls, but the trials will continue until the results are announced on 6 December. Before then he will have to face Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, a confrontation he has so far chosen to avoid, and further debates on Sky and ITV. His hesitancy has enabled the Davis camp to portray him as running from the fight. From this week, almost daily hustings around the country will test his mettle.

The man sitting opposite me on the train down to Winchester does not seem very hobbit-like. David Cameron is smart but not ostentatious in what looks very much like a high-street suit, the gentle tones of his lilac shirt and yellow tie giving him the demeanour of the sort of young man a solid Tory mother from the shires would find unthreatening. As the autumn sun streams through the window, the effect is soft-focus, and the two photographers tracking him for the day take full advantage. Travelling second class, and with no entourage to speak of, he gives a good impression of ordinary, not once betraying his Eton education.

Despite a disappointing performance in the Question Time debate the night before, Cameron appears supremely confident on this latest leg of the campaign trail. Before we start to chat, he insists on reading through a pile of newspapers to check his notices - which are uniformly bad. As he flicks through his first difficult press for several weeks he keeps up an excellent show of equanimity. A text message from Boris Johnson adds to his cheery demeanour: "Marina [Johnson's wife] says you creamed him." Cameron knows this is nonsense, but he is convinced he has found the formula for the revival of the Conservatives and believes he is unstoppable. When Blair was outsmarted week in, week out by William Hague in parliament, it strangely enhanced his reputation because it made the Prime Minister look human and the leader of the opposition a prodigious freak. Daniel Hannan, the MEP for the south-east accompanying Cameron to Winchester, tells him, perhaps by way of reassurance, that the debate with Davis may have had a similar effect. "My wife liked it when you apologised for interrupting a member of the audience, I think that sort of thing goes down very well."

When Cameron finally looks up from his papers, he says: "I am enjoying this." I have to say I believe him. "The leadership campaign has lit a spark in our party and our politics. It has been about a choice: whether we go on playing the same tunes, offering tax cuts and a handful of grammar schools, and getting the same results, or opt for a thoroughly modern Conservatism." He clearly likes this line, because he uses it again on Andrew Marr's programme the following Sunday. Privately, the Cameron camp is dismissive of Davis's claims to the centre ground, although they retain the public facade of respect for their opponent. They believe he has reverted to core hardline policy-making, as a reflex attempt to gain support. However, in contrast to previous leadership elections, their analysis suggests that Tory members have finally begun to understand the need for a broader appeal.

The Davis camp is furious that Cameron has succeeded in persuading the media of the seriousness of his candidacy. "Just listen to the vacuity of his attempt to define a modernising agenda. This has no intellectual underpinning. He has learnt his lines like an advert and uses the same phrases endlessly," one of Davis's people complains. They are particularly incensed by his pledge to "recast" Conservative values.The Davisites will spend the crucial last few weeks of the campaign wondering out loud which values Cameron has in mind: low taxation, the rule of law, the sanctity of private property, the nation state?

Cameron repeats his modernising mantras wherever he goes. These are some of the phrases he uses: "It is time to recast our values according to the spirit of the age and the challenges of our times" . . . "pragmatism and idealism, not dogma and ideology" . . . "we must talk about the limitations of government, but we must never be limited in our aspirations for government". He will state these core messages until he is sure they are embedded in the public consciousness. His is a carbon copy of the mid-1990s media strategy that Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell constructed for Blair. When journalists are irritated by the repetition, you know you have got your message across.

During interviews for this article I have heard these core messages repeated, almost word for word, by each member of the Fellowship. Cameron calls this "Total Conservatism". This is what it boils down to: the world has changed since the Labour victory of 1997 (and certainly since 1979) and there is considerable agreement on the centre ground of British politics. The real issues for the future (and especially for the younger generation) are not the traditional Tory obsessions of Europe, immigration, tax and deviant behaviour, but global poverty, climate change and the creation of efficient public services for the 21st century. The Tory modernisers believe Blair is broadly correct in identifying the problems, but do not believe a Labour government is capable of delivering the solutions. Where Blair blends into Conservatism, Cameron will shamelessly welcome this and argue that he is being true to Tory values rather than opening up clear blue water to the right of Labour for the sake of it. Already Cameron has said he will reverse Tory opposition to tuition fees and support Blair's education and health reforms which will further open up schools and the NHS to the private sector.

The moment of epiphany for many in the Fellowship came, prosaically enough, on 26 April this year during an election poster launch. As a last desperate act, a sheepish George Osborne joined the party co-chairman Liam Fox under a six-foot picture of a sinister-looking Blair that had the slogan: "If he's prepared to lie to take us to war, he's prepared to lie to win an election." It is said now that Osborne's heart wasn't in it. "It was a disaster," says one Cameron supporter who claims it was a turning point. "We knew the public hated Tony Blair, but they didn't like us any more."

It was at this point that key backroom figures such as Steve Hilton and George Bridges, who were working on focus groups around the country, realised that the unpopularity of the government was not translating into Tory votes. Both are now heavily involved in the Cameron campaign. Cameron himself denies any such moment of awakening, but I am told he grew increasingly disillusioned during the drafting of the last manifesto, with its appeals to traditional Tory prejudices on immigration, crime and Europe.

As we walk through the streets of Winchester to a meeting with local Tories at the Guildhall, Cameron projects the automatic rapport with the usual high-street selection of young mums and elderly couples that one expects from politicians. But his ideological hinterland is more difficult to penetrate. Where is the evidence to counter the criticism that he is little more than a public relations construct, a man who has bought into the strategic lessons of new Labour, a man who regards books such as The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould's insider's guide to the rise of Blair, as tablets of stone.

When I ask him to set out his political inspiration, he does not name a single major thinker or historical figure. His first offering is "Michael Howard, who really did change things when he was at the Home Office". He then mentions "being in the Treasury after Black Wednesday", before name-checking various present-day operatives such as the Tory spokesman on trade and industry, David "Two Brains" Willetts, and apparatchiks Danny Finkelstein and Danny Kruger (the man who had to stand down as Tory candidate for Sedgefield after saying there needed to be a period of "creative destruction" in public services).

It is tempting to draw parallels with the last period of Conservative renewal in opposition in the mid-1970s. But it would be misleading. When Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher began the monetarist revolution at the Centre for Policy Studies by exploring the ideas of the right-wing economists Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, they were rowing against the political tide not just in Britain but also within their own party. Cameron and his coterie are, by contrast, rowing with the tide.

It is hard, for example, to imagine Cameron producing a modern-day version of Thatcher's "Hayek moment" when, shortly after assuming the leadership in 1974, she dramatically interrupted the speaker of the Commons, reached into her briefcase, pulled out a copy of Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty and announced "this is what we believe". Cameron's movement is unashamedly free of such ideological ballast.

And yet the Gandalf figure of the Cameron Fellowship, Oliver Letwin, was present as a young man during the latter days of the Centre for Policy Studies discussions and worked in Downing Street for Thatcher during what they look back on as the glory years of the mid-1980s. But Letwin is wary of parallels: "They had to mount a palace revolution to get their ideas across," he tells me. "That isn't quite necessary now." In terms of political style, Letwin remains the main influence on the group. His approach to David Blunkett when he shadowed him in opposition - agreeing with him on matters of principle and never opposing for the sake of it - deeply impressed Cameron.

Letwin is more adamant even than Cameron himself that the Conservatives should not rush into policy-making: "Over the past months - despite every temptation - we have refused to engage in the business of creating policy left, right and centre," he says. "If we are to be serious about changing the way we do business, we need to develop serious practical policies and that is not something you do overnight." In a genuinely radical departure from traditional policy-making, Letwin says there should be no attempt to develop separate policies on the environment, regeneration, housing, planning and transport until the Conservatives develop an integrated policy for these interdependent areas. "We have to become the party of ideas, of thinkers, academics and practitioners - and we will be doing that over a couple of years. But we will only be making policy at the time of the next election."

Like many MPs, George Osborne likes to have cartoons on the walls of his Westminster office. His relate almost entirely to the 1970s, as if to remind him of what a Labour government in trouble looks like. On his bookshelves stand two prominently placed biographies of Gordon Brown and the inevitable copy of The Unfinished Revolution. "We are opposition politicians; a whole generation who have never been ministers. It is our formative experience and we are defined by it," he says. It is for this reason, he says, that like Cameron and Letwin he refuses to be drawn on policy. "People may say we are light on policy, but we must resist the radicalism of easy answers."

And yet, in the longer term, Osborne and the others are beginning to embrace radical thinking. The first expression of this will come with his "Tax Reform Commission", which will look at simplifying the tax system and at the arguments for a so-called "flat tax". Osborne has done well to attract a range of experts, from the Institute of Directors, the British Chambers of Commerce and elsewhere, but the flat-tax idea has already been dismissed by many mainstream economists. Osborne is unabashed: "The commission is part of a wider change. There are lots of people who have not touched the Tory party for years, but who are now willing to help. This is symptomatic of a change of mood. There is no longer a new Labour court." Ridicule from Gordon Brown has not lessened their conviction that a simplification of Britain's tax system could be a vote winner. In this area, the Tory modernisers may have the seeds of a radical programme, unappealing though it is to most on the left. From here, it is almost certain that the team will move on to state education, an Osborne obsession. The shadow chancellor talks of Britain's education as suffering from "apartheid". The extent to which Blair and Brown will be able to demonstrate that the large injection of funds into public services has paid dividends will determine Cameron's next move.

Damian Green, a key figure in Davis's campaign and himself a relative moderate, concedes that presentationally Cameron's team seized the initiative early on and have not lessened their grip. "Their campaign has achieved a lot in a very short time and their brilliance has been to make him into a celebrity," Green says. He poses the same question as his rivals - "Do you travel policy-light or carry your policies with you?" - but alights on a different answer. "We are arguing substance and putting forward new policy ideas across the piece so that people can see what a David Davis opposition or government would concentrate on." That might be part of the problem. Several key Davis backers, including Willetts, are said to have had serious wobbles and considered switching sides. The right-wing former candidate Liam Fox has also said it is too early to talk about concrete policy ideas.

Although he can hardly be considered an intellectual, Davis has a stronger grounding in Conservative political philosophy than his smoothly erudite rival. Old friends such as John Blundell, head of the right-wing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, remember Davis at the London Business School in the early 1970s as a voracious reader of right-wing thinkers such as Karl Popper and Milton Friedman. Blundell once described him to me as "one of the brightest people I've ever met".

Davis knows that if he wore his right-wing monetarism on his sleeve it would undermine his case for the leadership further by associating him with a Thatcherite past. Equally, if Cameron wins, he is committed to wresting the party away from the self-destructive nostalgia for the orthodoxies of Thatcherism that have dogged the party in opposition.

For all the attempts by the Cameron campaign to represent the leadership contest as the struggle of a band of cheerful hobbits against the forces of darkness, of modernisers against recalcitrant and previously dominant ideologues, something else is at work here.

David Davis has made much of his rise from a council flat, but his opponents believe the time may have come for some good old-fashioned breeding. The two camps are split between the grammar school oiks - Davis, Green, Willetts - and the public school toffs - Cameron, Osborne, Letwin. Although both sides can provide exceptions, in the end class may provide a greater clue to the divisions in this contest than policy. Margaret Thatcher led a party dominated by the values of the suburban middle classes and some have never forgiven her for this. Now, after 30 years, the old order is beginning to reassert itself and some modernisers are quite explicit about it. One shadow cabinet supporter of Cameron puts it like this: "Michael Howard was the son of immigrants, William Hague was a northern comprehensive boy and we all know about John Major's humble origins. We have had a succession of party leaders from a non-traditional party background and look where it got us."