Lunch with an old friend, who lives in the North. She asked me for a political assessment, and then interrupted when I started banging on about Europe. "No" she said: "I'm talking about real people, and what they are thinking". She then proceeded to tell me, which was the object of the whole exercise.
"Worry" was the key word. Almost everyone she knew was anxious about the state of the world, and the nation, and in personal terms. They were alarmed about the impact of malign events upon themselves and their families. Some people, who had never expected to be in such a position, were afraid for their jobs. Others had been obliged to make sacrifices. One couple had just finished educating the kids and were looking forward to feeling well-off – until the husband had to take a 20 per cent pay cut.
Most of the people she was talking about had children who were ready to enter the labour market. What would it be like for them? Would they be able to emulate their parents, with good jobs, decent-sized houses and enough money for school-fees? Or were we in an entirely new world? The last age of austerity had been endured in the immediate post-war years. Were we returning to those dire days? Could it really be true that many of the economic advances which Britain had made since 1945 were now in jeopardy?
Obviously, she was referring to families who had some financial cushion against adversity. But before anyone sneers, it should be remembered that these are people who have spent their lives working hard, saving, paying a lot of tax, obeying the law apart from the odd three points and forty quid – and training their children to follow their example. These are the people who make sure that the country gets up in the morning and goes to work. Moreover, their fears about the future are shared throughout society.
Most of my friend's acquaintances are natural Tories, which does not mean that they have always voted Tory. Some were taken in by Tony Blair: others, on occasions, by the Liberal Democrats. Many of them could imagine flirting with UKIP, especially in elections for the European Parliament. But in most cases, they only want an excuse to vote Tory. They are David Cameron's to lose.
So what should Mr Cameron do to avoid mislaying them? First – vital – he must rebuild his reputation for competence. The Budget imbroglio has been very damaging. I argued that it had been merely bad luck plus some marginal misjudgments. "Doesn't matter" replied Katie: "It's the perceptions which count and they were awful". Agreed.
It did not matter that the Prime Minister had left a child behind in a pub. On the contrary: it made him seem human. Every parent had similar experiences – or at least near misses. In charge of her own young plus a pack of nephews and nieces, she had once left a brat on Iona. Fortunately, she had stopped for ice-cream just after reaching the mainland. When only ten greedy little hands stretched out for eleven ice-cream cones, a roll-call was rapidly followed by frantic telephoning. Once her blood was running warm again, everyone agreed that it was a funny story.
Mr Cameron had one advantage, she said. He looked impressive on television. At big events such as the G8, he did Britain proud. But appearances were not enough. She and her friends wanted to know what it all meant. They did not expect facile optimism. They know that everything was very difficult. They also understand that many of the levers of recovery – insofar as they exist – are not in Britain's hands. They are aware of the international dimension. They just want an explanation, by a leader in whom they can repose a cautious confidence.
That is David Cameron's opportunity. He can win the voters' confidence, by taking them into his own confidence. He must find a way of giving his version of events, without in any way dumbing down: above all, without pretending that the Government has got everything right.
In this, he has a second advantage. He is the only European leader – virtually the only world leader – who is not afraid of his people. This does not mean that he is complacent: far from it. He reads the polls. But he does believe that if he could persuade the voters to see the world through his eyes, he would win. At times, most politicians think like that. Mr Cameron does so more consistently and more confidently than almost any of them.
He is a good communicator with a powerful intellect and an authoritative manner. Leadership comes easily to him. It is time that he started to deploy those gifts and use that leadership, to reassure the country: to convince a fearful public that we will weather the storm.