So very unprofessional

How did David Cameron lose his nerve and his bearings in just one month? Martin Bright looks at the

If there was one thing David Cameron had to do during July it was to hold his nerve. While Gordon Brown was enjoying his inevitable honeymoon as Prime Minister, the Tory leader's main task was to show he wasn't rattled. I heard this simple piece of advice from Conservative MPs, activists and right-wing journalists from the moment Tony Blair stepped down. It was even accepted wisdom in government circles. Everyone knew it. Everyone, it seems, except Cameron.

To be fair, he almost pulled it off. He managed to keep it together after the rows over grammar schools policy and museum charges. He refused to bend from his modernising mission even as he failed to gain ground in two by-elections and as national opinion polls were turning against him. He stuck to his guns after visiting Rwanda while his constituency was under water. But he finally lost it just after ten past eight on the morning of the last day of July. Of all places, he chose the public forum of Radio 4's Today programme in which to do it.

In a spectacular schoolboy tantrum, he lashed out at everyone who had dared criticise him, from Stanley Kalms, the former Tory treasurer, to Maurice Saatchi, with whom he had worked running the 2005 Conservative election strategy. But his special wrath was reserved for Ali Miraj, a Tory "A-list" candidate who had chastised Cameron for using "gimmickry" and being "obsessed with PR". In a vicious counter-swipe at Miraj, Cameron suggested that the party's most experienced Muslim activist - appointed by Cameron himself to the Conservatives' commission on international and national security policy - had come to him and asked for a peerage.

Perfect symbol

It was this outburst that showed he had finally cracked. His attack on Miraj was bizarre, intemperate and, as Miraj later told me, "very un-prime ministerial". Little would have been made of Miraj's comments had Cameron not drawn attention to them. On the face of it, the views of a mere former councillor from west London and failed parliamentary candidate should be of little import. But Cameron knows that that does not apply in this case. Miraj is precisely the sort of person Cameron wanted to symbolise the new Conservatives: a successful young Muslim with a sharp grasp of Asian politics in Britain today, who also happens to work for a top City investment bank. He was so keen on him at one point that he was the man chosen to introduce him at the launch of his campaign to become party leader.

I have met Miraj several times and he strikes me as a thoroughly modern Conservative of the sort David Cameron would like us to believe that he, too, has become. He has worked hard as an activist through the dark times for the party, and fought the seats of Aberavon in 2001 and Watford in 2005. He was an obvious choice for Cameron's A-list, designed to help the Conservatives find more black, Asian and female candidates for safe seats.

But Miraj, like many others who didn't completely fit the conventional white, middle-class, male mould, found the process hopeless as he discovered that local Conservative associations had not changed. I understand that at a meeting this year Cameron himself urged Miraj to accept to fight another marginal as local Tories were becoming increasingly hostile to the imposition of non-white candidates. Sayeeda Warsi, now shadow minister for community cohesion, also found it nigh-on impossible to find a seat. In Warsi's case, Cameron nominated her for a place in the Lords, which may explain the discussion between Cameron and Miraj about peerages.

Whatever the truth of what was discussed, I am told it was Cameron who asked for the meeting with Miraj, not the other way round. If that is true, then the idea that Miraj went to the Tory leader demanding a peerage doesn't seem to tell the whole story. His version is that he had first written to Cameron with his concerns and was later called in to see his leader. After receiving no comfort, he went public.

Natural allies

The problem for Cameron is that all this appears so petty and unprofessional. While his adversary, Gordon Brown, is meeting the president of the United States and helping persuade the United Nations to back a plan for bringing peace to Darfur, Cameron is settling scores with an ex-councillor from Ruislip. As one fellow A-lister told me: "They are a bunch of amateurs."

All is far from lost for Cameron. Fortunes could so easily reverse, and Labour cannot afford to be complacent. The Conservative Party is still flush with money thanks to the generosity of influential donors such as Lord Ashcroft, who will pump resources into the key marginal seats at the next election. This could still be enough to win it for Cameron.

Thanks to the Miraj affair, however, the British public now has a clearer picture of the petulant, ruthless operator it would be electing if it opted for Cameron. This is a man who has grasped better than most the non-negotiable requirement to reform his moribund party and wrench it towards the mainstream. In this he should be merciless with his opponents on the right. But progressives such as Ali Miraj should have been his natural allies. Discipline is a two-way process built on mutual respect, and the Tory leader will have to work hard not to lose other high-calibre candidates.

Cameron is a young man in a hurry. He would do well to sit down calmly over the summer and study the career of his formidable opponent. In this context, a month is nothing. Just imagine holding your nerve for 13 years.