Leader: Dave the mystery chap – but the substance isn't there

The electorate is not hurrying to embrace Mr Cameron's Tories, as they did Mr Blair in 1997 or Mrs T

The Conservatives could not have had more propitious circumstances in which to demonstrate that not only has the previously self-described Nasty Party changed for the better under the leadership of David Cameron, but that it has become, once more, the natural party of government. The Tories are up against a Labour government that has been in power for 13 years and, since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, has been shaken by bitter internal conflicts. The United Kingdom is mired in the deepest recession since the 1930s. We have endured a once-in-a-century shock to the world financial system. Unemployment is approaching three million. The economy is being kept alive only by emergency fiscal and monetary stimulus programmes, and still the recovery is fragile.

We do not need, in addition, a well-sourced, 800-page book by the respected Westminster commentator Andrew Rawnsley to remind us that Mr Brown is deeply unpopular, both within the country at large and in his own party, or that he is prone to erratic mood swings and volcanic eruptions of anger. One can indeed imagine the "forces of hell" that were unleased against Alistair Darling for being simply, well, himself: honest and straightforward.

In such circumstances, the Conservatives should be recording poll ratings similar to those enjoyed by New Labour in the run-up to the 1997 general election. However, the polls are narrowing, with both the Conservatives' lead and their projected share of the vote falling, if not yet alarmingly for
Mr Cameron and his privileged inner circle.

Small wonder that there is such unhappiness and restiveness among many Conservative MPs, as James Macintyre reports on page 14. The Tories are not united behind Mr Cameron. Part of the problem is that few people, even in his own party, know what the Tory leader believes in or stands for. He is plausible. He is smooth and articulate. But, as Simon Heffer writes on page 26 of this special issue on the Conservatives, he is a politician without principle. The party knows what it wants, according to Mr Heffer. It wants grammar schools, stiff immigration controls and punitive spending cuts. It wants clear and decisive leadership of the kind that was provided by Margaret Thatcher, who, as our exclusive poll reveals on page 30, remains very much a hero to the present as well as the next generation of Conservative politicians.

Yet Mr Cameron has no such certainties, as he has shown this year by flip-flopping risibly on any number of policies, from a desire to give special privileges to marriage through the taxation system to equivocating on exactly how the Tories would reduce the Budget deficit. Would the cuts in public spending be immediate and swingeing, as George Osborne would want, or not? Nobody seems to know.

Mr Cameron has been leader of the opposition for nearly five years. When he seized the leadership, in what some senior Tories call a "young MPs' coup", the Conservatives had been demoralised by three consecutive general election defeats. In many ways, the Tories had sleepwalked through the early Blair years, unable coherently to oppose or challenge the New Labour hegemony. Many Conservatives were still in mourning for the fallen Mrs Thatcher, traumatised by the nature of her departure as well as by the squabbling and rancour that had gripped the parliamentary party during the wretched John Major premiership. It was a great moment for Mr Cameron to become leader.

As we have said before, his early positioning was impressive. He spoke a different kind of language from his immediate predecessors - the language of compassionate conservatism - and he was genuinely a social liberal.

At first, Labour did not understand him, as David Marquand writes in his essay, just as the Tories did not understand - and thus underestimated - Tony Blair. Cameron was less a Thatcherite than an old-style, Burkean Whig: pragmatic, plural, adaptable and non-ideological. It seemed that he knew exactly how he wanted to transform the party, and how to make it electable again.

Today, he offers no such clarity. After five years as party leader, he remains as opaque and unknowable as he ever was: a leader in search of a mission. He is, as our poem, with apologies to Old Possum, suggests, very much a mystery chap, with a "raft of policies" that he "plucks from thin air,/But when you take a closer look, the substance isn't there".

Unsurprisingly, the electorate is not hurrying to embrace Mr Cameron's Tories, as they did Mr Blair in 1997 or Mrs Thatcher in 1979, at comparable moments of crisis.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum