When the best strategy is to do nothing

If the price of the extra two million votes David Cameron needs is a few thousand "scorched earthers

Too often over the past 20 years, Conservatives have gathered at their party conference with one thought in mind: how do we get rid of our useless leader? Not this year. David Cameron's position is, well, unassailable. Elected barely ten months ago by a 2:1 majority, he has used that time to do one thing only - to change the image of the Conservative brand. In that, at least, he scores highly.

The chief part of the Cameron strategy has been to jettison the party's image of being extreme, self-obsessed and right wing. The Cameroons believed this was the only way of attracting back the soft, centrist, Lib Dem-inclining vote.

The polls show they have been remarkably successful. But the danger is that this strategy may alienate both the wider party membership and the Tory core vote. A cursory glance at the www.conservativehome.com website shows that this is already happening. But there are many in the Cameron cockpit who take the view that it's a necessary price to pay. Indeed, having the odd handbags-at-dawn spat with Ann Widdecombe or a bare-knuckle fight with Norman Tebbit is almost a prerequisite for Cameron to appear the voice of sweet reason.

Cameron knows what the right knows. If the price of getting the extra two million votes needed to win an election is to lose a few thousand "scorched earthers" on the right, it's a price he's only too happy to pay. So far, he's managed to keep the right on board despite trying its patience with his failure to deliver on withdrawing from the European People's Party and his criticism of Israel. The right-wing Cornerstone Group MPs have been tactically outplayed, and, having pledged their support to Cameron 12 months ago, they have nowhere else to go.

The revival is almost entirely down to Cameron himself. A cult of personality has been consciously engendered. He, not the party, is now the Conservative brand. He is a thoroughly modern man whose marketing persona aims at direct comparison with one man - Gordon Brown. The media perceive Cameron to be where the zeitgeist is. By comparison, Brown looks like a man of the past. And that's exactly the way the Cameroons want it.

New policies wanted

So far, so good. Now comes the tricky part. The demands for new policies have been getting shriller by the week. Storm clouds already loom on the horizon, as the various policy groups start to publish interim reports. The Tory tax reform commission, under the arch-Thatcherite Michael Forsyth, looks to be the battleground. Its bold ideas are unlikely to find favour with the leadership, whose mantra "sharing the proceeds of growth" is almost as tiresome as Brown's "prudence with a purpose".

The environmental policy group under John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith will present even trickier dilemmas. Cameron has nailed his colours to the windmill and the party may start spluttering that "enough is enough". Activists rather like the concept of Vote Blue, Go Green - until, that is, its consequences are spelled out: huge tax hikes on cars and air travel. If Cameron is able to square that particular circle his political dexterity will be unquestioned.

Many in the party argue that the policy commissions should be asked to delay their reports for as long as possible. If, so the argument goes, the Tories can take the lead over Labour for the first time ever in a poll of who has the best health policies (at a time when the Tories don't even have any health policies), why risk everything by drawing up controversial policies that will shake the status quo?

The second area that Cameron has failed to tackle is reform of the Conservative Party itself. The structural reforms that Michael Howard and Francis Maude set in train last year have been abandoned after a revolt in the constituencies, which do not take kindly to being told by Central Office that they should lose some of their independence. Membership is still on the slide and the head count at party HQ is alarmingly low. However, donations are steadily climbing and the money problems of yesteryear seem to be fading.

Maude has put together the most interesting and meaty conference agenda in years and is about to pour more resources into online campaigning. But this is tinkering around the edges. In order to restore the party to its status of the most formidable campaigning machine in the western world, much more needs to be done. Local party campaigners have to be given the resources to win crucial marginals.

It's been a roller-coaster year for the Conservatives, and most won't mind if Labour's leadership woes take the spotlight off them for the next six to nine months. It is this period that will determine the outcome of the whole Cameron project. After the glitz and headlines of the first ten months, it's where the legwork will be done.

Iain Dale is a former Conservative parliamentary candidate

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act