NS Essay - 'David Cameron's style makes attempts to play up his background look mean-spirited. But his passage through his first month as leader speaks volumes about the confident chutzpah that tends to cost parents around £25,000 a year'

Like Blair in the 1990s, the Tory leader is being all things to all men, writes John Harris. For all

Fifteen long years ago, the Conservative Party's last prime minister pledged to create a classless society by the year 2000. In retrospect, one can perhaps credit John Major with blazing the trail for the across-the-board belief in supposed meritocracy that has elbowed the old-fashioned idea of equality to the margins, though his rhetoric still seems borderline absurd - the Brixton bank clerk's equivalent, perhaps, of those Soviet speeches guaranteeing the arrival of "all-round, developed socialism" by the end of the 1970s.

Six years after Major's deadline, his vision seems a pretty for-lorn hope. Snobbery is newly fashionable, as evidenced by three years of chav jokes and the prole grotesques dreamt up by the Little Britain duo (both privately educated, as it happens). In recent months, the divide between the super-rich and very poor has become a newly fashionable political talking point. And yet one small shred of classlessness has materialised - not the removal of the blocks standing in the way of some imagined mass passage from DE to ABC1, but rather the success with which those right at the top are able, long after the demise of deference made their background a cultural burden, to transcend their poshness.

Last year brought two notable examples: James Blunt, the Old Harrovian and some- time tank captain who became the year's most successful British singer-songwriter; and the ubiquitous David Cameron, apparently able to shrug off Eton, a bloodline to Henry VII and the impression of ample wealth crystallised by his wife's alleged ownership of a £900 handbag, and look like an occupant of the same world as the rest of us. (In an ICM poll taken ten days after his big win, 53 per cent of the respondents endorsed the proposition "He understands the problems people like me face" - not bad for a man who confesses that his background is "hideously privileged".) It was all summed up in one endlessly recycled image: the new Tory leader whizzing through the gates of parliament on his mountain bike, a cagoule-clad model of what might be termed middle-classlessness: the quality, once the calling card of Blue Peter presenters, that manages to shake off any impression of cosseted wealth and convey an engaging kind of derring-do.

Cameron's personal style may well make any attempt to play up his background look either mean-spirited or misplaced - though his passage through his first month as leader speaks volumes about the kind of self-confidence and chutzpah that tends to cost parents around £25,000 a year. To use the terminology of Philip Gould's history of new Labour, The Unfinished Revolution (a book beloved of the Cameronites), his leadership is in its "electric shock treatment" phase, crackling with a desire to leap away from the Tories' parochial, crabbily individualist reputation. So out it has all come: social justice, the dearth of female MPs, the gender pay gap, organic food - even, according to a report in the Times, news that Cameron has employed the architect Alex Michaelis "to provide green heating, lighting, insulation and fuel systems . . . for his new £1m house in Notting Hill". By the time Cameron pledged to stand up to big business and not treat the police "with kid gloves", it was all getting a bit much: on this form, if he ever has a Clause Four moment, it may well involve him rediscovering the wonders of nationalisation.

Perhaps Cameron's most telling move has been to rope Bob Geldof into the Conservative globalisation and global poverty policy group - shameless (one blogger crisply summed up the move as follows: "1. Sign up Geldof; 2. Parade Geldof; 3. Erm, that's it") and hype-ridden (Geldof will apparently give the Tories roughly three hours of his time), but of a piece with the first stirrings of Cameronism. The ex-Boomtown Rat and the Tory leader, after all, have quite a lot in common. Both practise their own kind of anti-politics: Geldof with his pious insistence that "I am completely non-partisan, as are those dying of want"; Cameron through his slightly disingenuous claim not to be "a deeply ideological person" but a "practical one", so comically agnostic that he apparently won't even be described as a supporter of capitalism. Since the mid-1980s, Geldof has been a poster boy for the rebranding in bold new colours of what was once known as philanthropy, so that charities are now known as NGOs and are credited with a dynamism and agility that the state supposedly cannot match; over the past couple of months, Cameron has been flitting from regeneration project to community radio station to Children in Need fundraiser, claiming that voluntary organisations "work at the human level" and do "the most innovative and incredible work".

The most interesting parallel, however, lies in what Cameron may have learned from Geldof's role in the Make Poverty History campaign. Since last summer those at the top of all three parties have been blathering about MPH, marvelling at its supposed appeal to a generation thought to be lost to politics. You could be forgiven for interpreting at least some of that interest as a fascination with how so many people were gripped by what quickly turned out to be fuzzy emotion, there to be interpreted as anyone saw fit: the stuff, surely, of any political leader's dreams. What really did MPH want? The modest moves on debt and aid that Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Geldof himself heralded as a great step forward - or the kind of breakthrough that might have chimed with its own grandiose title? If the latter, then, six months on, with the details of the Glen-eagles debt cancellation deal yet to emerge and no real progress on trade, does any of the Hyde Park multitude feel cheated?

These questions are, of course, misplaced. Make Poverty History was the kind of quintessentially modern phenomenon that makes fretting about actual outcomes look old-fashioned. The campaign's public appeal, and therefore its "success", was based on the mobilisation of altruistic public sentiment coupled with that very modern desire for "change", not in the cause of anything specific, but in pursuit of one great emotional moment.

Now imagine, for all the unlikeliness of the idea, the same kind of forces pushing towards a Tory victory. That just might be what David Cameron is after. In that context, the recent deluge of solar panels, community groups, organic apples and Irish ex-rock stars makes perfect sense.

Naturally, we have been here before. The first new Labour election victory was an object lesson in the idea of the political sea change as feel-good national event, trailered by three years of much the same anti-political, touchy-feely, neophyte tactics as Cameron has adopted. As has been repeatedly pointed out, his current verbal tics ("We need to bring people together and bring Britain together"; "We have a shared responsibility for our shared future") are pure Blair circa 1994-97, while the carefully chosen props - the bike, the off-duty trainers and untucked-in shirt, the fondness for the Smiths and Radiohead - have echoes of the far-flung days when the then leader of the opposition staked a claim to be the first aspirant prime minister to be drawn from "the rock'n'roll generation". Expect a Cameron appearance at a future Brit Awards; if he's following the Blair model as closely as it seems he is, it'll probably happen in 2008.

Those well-thumbed copies of The Unfinished Revolution, however, may yet give his advisers pause for thought. In Blair's case, both rhetoric and window dressing tapped into hard political fact. The communitarian sentiment chimed with the widespread belief that Thatcherite individualism had turned toxic, the accent on Blair's relative youth with the sense that the Tories were tumbling into a kind of political senility. Everything, in Gould's account, could be whittled down to five messages: "Enough is enough; Britain deserves better; leadership not drift; people not privilege; future not the past."

The Cameron team may believe it can place a tick next to the last one. Should Labour's 2006 be defined by internecine scrapping (and/or another Blunkett-style resignation), the Tories may even manage to couch events in terms of governmental breakdown and notch up the first three. But emulating the meat of the Blair victory - that big ethical shift towards the collectivism that the most out-there Tories had resolved to vaporise - will surely continue to elude them.

Before anyone starts to feel too comfortable, however, we should remember two things. First, though Cameron's recent pronouncements on global poverty, social exclusion, and "quality of life" issues have been aimed more at his own party than the government, they have allowed him to stand on relatively untrampled political ground. Senior Blairites, after all, have long run scared of such subjects, passing up any high-mindedness in preference for the arid individualism summed up in last year's election pledges ("your family better off; your child achieving more") and by Alan Milburn's claim that it was Labour's mission to help more people "earn and own". Having always kept quiet about Labour's commendable record on poverty and reduced any talk of green politics to background noise, they suddenly find themselves outflanked, not least when it comes to those voters who keep an eye on the Liberal Democrats.

The second point concerns Cameron's social agenda, his aforementioned admiration for the voluntary sector and his recent decision to attack Gordon Brown. Here, for all the talk of him being either a blank canvas or secret social democrat, lies what currently passes for the kernel of Cameronism: an undimmed belief in hacking back government, rendered that bit more cuddly by his fervent embrace of community activists and social entrepreneurs (whatever they are), and contrasted with the caricature of Brown that even some Labour insiders seem only too happy to endorse. As well as being "a creature of the past . . . a totally confrontational politician", the Chancellor, in Cameron's demonology, embodies the sclerotic state: he is an eternal top-downer, yielding to the big plan and leaving bureaucratic paralysis wherever he goes - seeing people, in the words of that famous Tory conference speech, as "done fors" rather than "doers".

To hear some people talk, their respective personal styles make the point explicit. Brown's image is bound up with the occasions when he takes to the platform, grandly kung-fuing the air, conjuring up the billions that have apparently gone on health and education. Cameron would rather be seen in Blue Peter mode, zipping around community projects and pressing the flesh of his beloved volunteers. Though the photo ops might look like they showcase nothing more controversial than public spiritedness, there is often a state-bashing agenda at work. For example, when Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith visited the Eastside Young Leaders' Academy in Plaistow, London, a disciplinarian after-school enterprise for black boys run by the former governor of a young offenders' institution, Melanie Phillips used her Daily Mail column to celebrate the "threat" it posed to the local council, what it said about the "chronic failure" of the local education authority, and the challenge it represented "to all its beliefs". (Since then, Phillips has dutifully played her role in the Cameronites' Blair-inspired script, validating their drive to look dazzlingly modernised with her claim that they have embraced "the distorted doctrines of left-wing propaganda", though she mistakes tactics for principles: on the elemental question of the settlement between public and private, she and Cameron still have plenty in common.)

Thus far, Brown has issued one comment on all this, included in the Hugo Young Memorial Lecture he delivered seven days after Cameron won the Tory leadership. As well as highlighting the discrepancy between the two men's intellectual clout - whereas Cameron makes much of his love of Morrissey, Brown made reference to Hazlitt, Wordsworth, Locke and Orwell - the Chancellor took issue with "any new right view of the voluntary sector as a weapon in the battle against any role for government - a view that takes us backwards into an old world of paternalism". Fairness, he said, "can be advanced by but cannot, in the end, be guaranteed by charities, however benevolent, by markets, however dynamic, or by individuals, however well meaning, but guaranteed only by enabling government". By way of underlining his point, those last two words were mentioned four times.

As things stand, Cameron's politics are blurred enough to make it probable that he would affect to agree, although Brown was undoubtedly on to something. In Cameron's instinctive dislike of the state, his enthusiasm for the voluntary sector and his bland-sounding promises to somehow give people "more freedom and responsibility", there does lurk an update not just of paternalism, but of the Victorian values once beloved of the Tories. "Note his attachment to that Thatcherite phrase: 'rolling back the state'," a recent Observer profile advised, going on to point out that when it comes to such problems as drug abuse, crime and family breakdown, Cameron believes that "the state should give over much more of this work". Here is a vision, perhaps, in which the government retreats and leaves the unfortunate to be looked after by well-meaning Christians and fleece-wearing gap-year students.

For the Labour Party, however, this will be a tricky line of attack. For a start there are many senior Labour people, the same "diversity of provision" zealots whose ideas have so infected education and health policy, who probably agree with the Conservative leader. Equally importantly, there is what might be termed the Geldof Factor: the fact that in a culture which combines its dim view of government with the veneration of what can be achieved outside it - from tsunami relief and Children in Need to VSO and Band Aid - the new Tory approach might prove to be a winner, not least among the so-called White Wristband Generation. One thing is pretty clear: when it comes to the 60 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds who recently claimed to see Cameron as "someone I could vote for", Brown's belief in "enabling government" will have to be recast in slightly more enticing language.

February will bring the birth of Cameron's third child, and the ratcheting-up of Dave-mania. With the Sun warming to him, he will presumably have Hello!, OK! and Closer in the bag, while those whose view of the world is informed by more upright sources will be treated to an ongoing display of his catalysing powers: the Liberal Democrats' leadership election, indirectly caused by Cameron's arrival, will be festooned with references to him.

In the meantime Labour remains all but mute, reportedly taking the measure of this new adversary, perhaps reluctant to open fire while he is still in his honeymoon phase, but a bit short on actual targets. Thus far, the few firm anti-government positions he has taken betray a viewpoint that remains both unreconstructedly laissez-faire and surprisingly old-fashioned, though any challenge to them will probably lack the desired drama. Why a man so self-consciously metropolitan should want to reopen the debate on fox-hunting is an interesting subject, as is this self-styled modern family man's opposition to the extension of paternity leave - though neither is quite in the league of, say, Margaret Thatcher taunting Neil Kinnock about his membership of CND. That said, even this early phase of his leadership might give rise to the odd pointed question: after his recent pronouncements on the NHS, for example, someone might care to ask him whether, aside from his disabled son, Ivan, he intends to prove his disdain for the opt-out culture by sending his children to state schools.

For now, as Cameron continues to dish out his electric shocks, Labour sits and frets, confounded by his incongruous appeal. The Home Counties Old Etonian, according to one poll, has found a reception as sympathetic in the north and Midlands as in the south-east; from Bolton to Billericay his enthusiasm for pushing back the public sector is, inevitably, of far less interest than either his easy amiability or his apparent success in reviving the Tory social conscience. Over Christmas I received an e-mail from someone with friends in high Labour Party places, who is doing his best to meet the new Conservative challenge by pushing a pro-Brown idea of renewal, and who had two worries on his mind. The first was that Blair appeared to be in "mad-dash privatisation mode". The other was put a little more bluntly. "Cameron," he said, "scares the pants off me."