When I first met David Cameron, when he was contesting the leadership of the Conservative Party, I was immediately convinced he would win. David Davis may have since become a heroic civil liberties champion but then, if you remember, he was somewhat prehistoric, with his neglected wife and his busty blonde sidekicks in their "Double D" shirts. Cameron was easy, personable, modern. He didn't have any polices, but hey, let's not sweat the small stuff. "It has to be him," I said to the guys I was with and, as usual, instead of appreciating my deep political insight, they replied, "It's only because you fancy him."
Actually, I don't. I know he'll lose a lot of sleep over that. He certainly fancies himself, though, and who now doesn't fancy his chances?
What is astonishing is how absolutely useless Labour has been in taking him apart, even long before Gordon Brown became ever more doomy and gloomy. Cameron has risen to the top, seemingly as insubstantial as the froth on a macchiato. The real kick lies just below. Only now, and way too late, is the left trying to properly decode what it all means. Does Cameron have a coherent political philosophy? No. Is he making it up as he goes along? Yes. And if we don't understand that that gives him the advantage, then it is really is as bad as it looks.
Of course, lots could change. Brown could transform himself from Eeyore to Tigger. The Cameron crew's sense of entitlement could jar. The recession could mean we stick with what we know. Labour could renew itself with some policy initiatives that people actually understand. Right now this seems as likely as thinking that Nick Clegg will sweep to victory.
Tory drag queens
The great mistake that has been made about fragrant Dave is the assumption that somehow the public would see through him. See through to what? That he is posh? A schmoozer of the highest order? That he was born to rule? Of course they see it, and they don't mind much. The real problem is that they have seen through new Labour. So all Cameron needs to do is come up with policies that are simple triangulations of the kind that Tony Blair conjured up.
We are now to have progressive ends through conservative means. What on earth does this mean? Isn't it a contradiction in terms? Not in today's ideology-lite, personality-driven politics. Anyone who has been around the Tories for the past few years would have identified this shift in mood and character of the party. Labour's insistence that underneath they are all loathsome simply isn't true.
You meet these brightish thirtysomethings. They like to have a good time and they are engaging. They don't even appear to be that political, but they just happen to be in the Conservative Party. They are a world away from the blue-rinse bri gade. They are entrepreneurial, socially liberal - though not enough, as far as I am concerned - and think that the world would be a better place if the state decamped.
Cameron, intuiting what has been called the social recession - aptly described by Jonathan Rutherford as our "culture of insecurity" - has, in a significant break with Thatcherism, vowed to renew society. Repositioning his party as the healer of society and Labour as the party of the controlling state is a skilful and daring move. That this is embodied in the very personas of Cameron and Brown only shores up his case. Cameron is already seen as easygoing and trusting others to make their own decisions. George Osborne, his shadow chancellor of the exchequer, says the market rewards people more fairly than the state. They have a crazy belief in trickle-down fairness. This is a spurious argument in every way, yet because Brown is the personifi cation of a blocky, control-freak, overcentralised state, they can get away with it. "Character is more important than policy," Dave told Dylan Jones in that Just How Great Are We? tome.
The promise of small government is always seductive, but the left has been hopeless at reminding us that state is actually about people, too. It is not an abstract concept. It consists of many great teachers and nurses and individuals who work for others, not simply for profit. It is precisely new Labour's disregard for the public sector in all its forms that allows the Tories to rush in like desperate drag queens and dress up as caring, sharing, NHS-loving angels of mercy.
As Jon Cruddas has pointed out, Cameron has tapped into ethical and social concerns that appeal even to those who suffered under the worst excesses of Thatcherism. He has also pushed buttons with middle-class female floating voters in an emotionally intelligent way. You may laugh at his thoughts about Chocolate Oranges and the oversexualisation of young girls and his theories on education (more ball games, basically), but they resonate with people worried about the lack of civility and control in the public realm. There is a feeling that everything is falling apart and no one is actually in charge any more.
This "charming man"
Cameron's pitch is therefore completely contradictory. He will roll back the state (think compassionate conservatism, which really means Wisconsin-style welfare cuts and turns out not to be compassionate at all). At the same time society will magically transform itself into a place where antisocial behaviour evaporates and an era of politeness and self-control reinstates itself.
The fundamental flaw here, of course, is that the rapacious encroachment of consumer capitalism into the emotional and formerly private space of all our lives has, in effect, led to an almost total deregulation of social behaviour. This is the source of our constant anxiety. If Cameron and Osborne aren't going to regulate the market - and to do so goes against every fibre of their Tory Boy beings - nothing can actually change. While the US is regulating the market in a revolutionary way, their policies may already be dated.
Can Cameron, with his favourite Smiths track, "This Charming Man", smooth over these cracks? Yes, if he carries on as shamelessly as he has done. The sad thing is that Labour used to have a heart. Blair stole it. Brown broke it. All Cameron is doing is simply picking up the broken pieces and promising to mend them.