The Tory leader has done a brilliant job rebranding the "nasty party", but he has yet to come up wit

David Cameron, plus a sizeable entourage, swept past, drawing the attention of the senior Labour politician (now a cabinet minister) from our conversation. It was November 2005, and the self-styled "modern compassionate conservative" was on course to lead the Conservative Party. "Does he worry you?" I asked my lunch companion. "A bit, to be honest," was the reply. "But he's fantastically right-wing, you know. You should read some of his old speeches."

I did. And they were, indeed, a deep shade of blue. The trouble is that the electorate was apparently unwilling to make the same effort. Lab our's attempts to portray Cameron as a right-wing wolf in woolly compassionate clothing failed in the face of his determined rebranding of his party. A Tory leader who praised gay couples to his own party conference - as Cameron did in 2006 - was hard to paint as a reactionary.

The other principal line of attack against Cameron - that he is a toff, out of touch with real people - has also foundered. The prospect of a prime minister and mayor of London who are old chums from Eton and the Bullingdon Club at Oxford may stick in Labour throats, but it doesn't seem to bother the electorate.

If Labour politicians were a bit worried in 2005, they are terrified now. Unless there is a significant change in the political weather, Cameron is set to be prime minister within two years. For a long time, Labour refused to believe that Cameron was executing a brilliant strategy to return the Tories to office by reshaping Con servatism. Cameronism is real - as real as new Labour, or the Third Way - and is likely to be the guiding light of the next government.

As a political strategy, Cameronism represents a largely successful attempt to detoxify the Tory brand. Andrew Cooper, the Tory modernisers' favourite polling guru, spent years presenting evidence to party elders showing that people supported various Conservative policies - until they were told they were Conservative policies. Cameron was the first leader to understand this. The first two years of his leadership was like a sorbet between courses, intended to cleanse the electorate's palate of late Thatcherism. It consisted of a relentless marketing exercise to dem onstrate that Cameron was, variously, a "compassionate", "modern", "liberal", "centre-right", "practical" Conservative: and that he was leading his party in the same direction. At his boldest, Cameron has claimed himself as the true "heir to Blair". He and colleagues such as Oliver Letwin now audaciously claim to be pursuing "progressive ends by conservative means".

Now the bitter taste is gone, tougher policies on welfare, immigration and public services can be pursued without being dismissed as typical products of the "nasty party". Cameron was perhaps a little more explicit than he intended when he said last year: "We've prepared the ground by moving to the centre."

The success of Cameron's rebranding campaign, and his heavy reliance on Steve Hilton, a brilliant marketeer, has led a few Tories to dismiss him as nothing more than a pre-packaged, ideologically vacant product. A former minister, George Walden, has written that, in calibrating his position, Cameron asks himself: "What would Diana have done?"

Cameronism is certainly not an ide o logy, nor even - yet - a coherent political philosophy. Cameron himself, in his 2005 Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture, explicitly rejected "ideological" politics in favour of "practical Conservatism". But the broad contours of his thinking, and that of the bright politicians and advisers around him, are now visible. Cameron ism displays certain features: it emphasises the pragma tic over the theoretical; takes an essentially optimistic view of human nature; favours the devolution, rather than centralisation, of power; stresses social, rather than economic progress; and places more faith in society than in the state.

When he was studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, Cameron was enamoured of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. "After David Hume, he loved the free market and Thatcher," recalled his old friend James Fergusson. "He thinks exactly like Hume - he's a complete sceptic . . . it's all about throwing out dogma and starting from scratch." Cameron's view of human nature also appears to draw on Hume's conviction that, in affluent nations, progress would come from the growth of both knowledge and "humanity", by which he meant the "fellow feeling" necessary for "civilisation". While Thomas Hobbes believed the state was a necessary buffer between self- interested individuals engaged in a "war of all against all", Hume thought that, in the right conditions, people would willingly act in concert, for the greater good. Cameron said in 2007: "What builds society, what encourages civility, is people taking responsibility. Putting each other before themselves." Cameron is Humean, rather than Hobbesian.

Social recession

It is this essential optimism, that individuals and communities can usually organise their lives more successfully than any government, which underpins Cameron's rhetorical commitment to move power from central to local government and give users more power over the manner in which public services are provided. It remains to be seen whether he will be as much of a localiser in power, but the Tories now support directly elected mayors, a shift towards more locally based taxation, and much more choice over schools and hospitals. Cameron is honest about the fact that Thatcher's governments started the centralising trend long before Blair and Brown arrived on the scene, but defends her on the decidedly weak grounds that many councils had fallen into the hands of the "loony left".

But Cameronism diverges most sharply from Thatcherism with its focus on social, rather than economic, matters. Cam eron and his lieutenants argue that the nation is in a "social recession" and that "it's the society, stupid". One of Cam eron's mantras, a deliberate wedge between himself and Thatcher, is that "there is such a thing as society. It's just not the same thing as the state."

In a speech in May this year, widely reported for its revival of the Thatcherite drive for "good housekeeping", Cameron remained clear about his overall objective. "All this supports the overriding mission we have set for ourselves: to revive our society, just as Margaret Thatcher revived our economy; to reverse Britain's social breakdown, just as she reversed our economic breakdown," he said. "We want to respond to what should be a new post-bureaucratic age, by decentralising power, by giving people more opportunity and control over their lives, by making families stronger and society more responsible."

This paragraph is the best summary of Cameronism that Cameron himself has yet articulated. All the work on family breakdown, poverty, education and antisocial behaviour fits into the basic Cameron analysis: society is broken, and the state cannot put it back together again. "The big question," Cam eron suggests, borrowing heavily from JFK, "is not what will government do - but what will society do? Not so much what will I do - but what will you do? And what will we do together?"

This is all coherent and plausible, but it is neither especially new nor particularly Conservative. The Social Justice Commission, established by John Smith, and reporting in 1994, argued that "what central government can do for people is limited, but there is no limit to what people and communities can be enabled to do for themselves". Of course, the differences between political parties are often overstated, but nonetheless it is difficult to cope with the level of political disorientation caused by Cameronism. Consider this statement by Oliver Letwin: "We have put on the agenda issues of well-being, quality of life and social breakdown that Labour has ignored. These are central contemporary challenges - but Labour's focus on markets and economic value at the expense of all other concerns, their obsession with . . . notions of private sector 'efficiency', have rendered Labour incapable of addressing them." There is no way a shadow Labour minister would have dared write such socialist heresies in 1995.

Cameronism is, however, starchly critical of state initiatives to solve underlying social problems, lambasting Labour for nationalising social problems. Cameron has been much mocked for encouraging us to "hug a hoodie" (although it was an Observer subeditor who coined the phrase). "There are two ways you can try to make those kids behave better," the Conservative leader told a conference at the RSA last year. "You can put a policeman on every bus, an Asbo on every teenager and a parenting order on every parent . . . Alter natively, you can build a society where those kids know how to behave in public, because that's how they've been brought up and that's what society expects."

OK, Dave, that sounds great. Nobody can sensibly argue against a more socially responsible, civilised society. Labour would love to be able to cut the law-and-order budget following an outbreak of Humean humanity. But how - given that you, mostly correctly, suggest that the state can't do it - are you going to lead us to this Brave Responsible World? Cameron says: "We can actively build the responsible society we need by creating a framework of incentives that encourages civility and pro-social behaviour."

But - and this is the big question for Cameron - can we really? There is more than a hint here, in the philosopher Jon Elster's phrase, of "willing that which cannot be willed". Cameron wants to "roll forward society", but it is not yet clear how this is to be achieved.

Unthinking anti-statism

Indeed, Cameron verges on hypocrisy on the issue of state action. He has set up the Young Adult Trust, a charity that he says is "working in partnership with many of Britain's leading youth organisations, to develop plans for a national programme for all 16-year-olds that helps teach them the responsibilities of adulthood". A national programme to teach adulthood? If Ed Balls had announced it, the Tories would be turning it into a piece of "nanny state gone mad" propaganda. Cameron is quite right that Labour is very often guilty of a knee-jerk statism, but he is equally at risk of following an unthinking anti-statism.

Cameronism will only be a new political movement if it can get past the defunct "pro-state" versus "anti-state" divide. More thoughtful Conservative modernisers have already got to the properly liberal attitude towards the state, which is an agnostic one. "The purpose of reform and reducing demand for government services is not tax reduction - that is a (welcome and necessary) by-product," writes Danny Finkelstein, a Times columnist and influential Tory thinker. "The purpose is to change the relationship between citizens and the state, to build a stronger society and to improve the quality of things like health and education."

The Cameron critique of the state is very often that it simply isn't working properly. Take the issue of family breakdown, which the Cam eronites say is a major cause of a range of other social ills: this is true. What, then, is to be done? A tax break for marriage is mostly a symbolic measure, as Cameron himself has come close to admitting. The Conservatives have looked hard at the stress points for families and proposed policies to offer some relief. The birth of a child is one pressure point, so the Tories are advocating the provision of a dedicated maternity nurse for every new family, for up to six hours a day, similar to a Dutch scheme. The difficulty of combining work with childcare is another strain, so the Conservatives want a new law giving all parents the right to request part-time work. These are welcome measures: but it does seem as if it is the state, rather than society, that is rolling forward here.

It is clear that some of Cameron's anti-state rhetoric is designed to help the Conservatives paint Gordon Brown and his allies as statist, centralising meddlers - a task made easier by the fact that they often are. But the truth is that, in many areas, the Conservatives want to improve the state, rather than shrink it. And it might be as well to start saying so.

Yet there are many areas, such as antisocial behaviour, individual health and local governance, where Cameronism represents a genuine stepping back of the state, in the optimistic hope that "society" will fill the gap. This is the genuine radicalism of Cameronism, and also the greatest paradox about the man himself. Even before becoming PM, he is making a compelling argument for his own powerlessness at the head of the next government: real power lies in society. If elected, Cameron will be the first prime minister from Britain's ruling class for half a century - but one who proudly claims not to be able to rule.

This is an edited version of an article from the forthcoming July issue of Public Policy Research

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug