All those who study politics have a problem. They are abnormal. I am not using that word in a pejorative sense: merely in a literal one. Real people, normal people, keep politics in its place. They can often spend an entire day without giving it any thought. Students and practitioners of politics are different. They think about it as often as a teenage boy thinks about sex. There is a quick question which will discover whether you or your friends are political obsessives: score the answers a), b) and c). It is as follows. Can you remember every vote you have ever cast?

If your reaction is bewilderment that such a question could even be asked – "of course I can: can't everyone? – you have got it bad. You are an a). If you have to think for a bit, trying to remember dates of local government elections, you are a b). But be careful. The addiction can grow. If your reaction is bewilderment that such a question could even be asked – "what do you think I am: some kind of freak?" – there is nothing to worry about. You are a c). You are normal.

Those of us who are abnormal find it hard to come to terms with normality. Anthropologists are constantly on the look-out for naive subjects: people who will answer their questions unselfconsciously. The same is true of political scientists, but it is not easy for the abnormal to make sense of the naive; the frames of reference are too dissimilar. If you talk to people engrossed in the political game, you will find that they do not rely exclusively on opinion poll data. They all have their own theories, their own intuitions. but they are never sure whether these are true. "What is truth?" said Pilate. We abnormals sympathise. We do not know either.

When Eamonn de Valera wanted to find out what the plain people of Ireland were thinking, he looked into his own heart. Maybe that could work in the simpler, plainer Ireland of yesteryear. Margaret Thatcher always felt that she understood her people. But they were never the whole nation. The electoral system always concealed the fact that she was never truly popular.

Hence this rumination on abnormality. It is a way into the most interesting question in modern British political history, Although I have probably addressed it already on these pages, it is worth further thought. I refer, of course, to the unpopularity of the Tory party.

In the early Sixties, our abnormal predecessors were much more confident than we are. They thought that they understood the influences which determined voting behaviour. People who wanted to own their own homes, who were or hoped to be middle class, who had aspirations for their children – were mostly Tory. Municipal tenants, trade unionists, contented members of the working class: Labour. But if that had remained true, it should have been virtually impossible for the Tories to lose an Election after 1966. Every aspect of political demography was moving in their favour. Yet the Tories have found it very hard to exceed 43.4%; Alec Home's losing score in 1964.

So why have they persistently under-performed? Because they were seen as the party of, by and for the rich. For years, the damage was mitigated by two factors: Labour's commitment to socialism and the Tories' reputation for economic competence. The man with no heart will usually beat the man with no head. Then came the early Nineties, Tony Blair – and 13 years in Opposition.

In response, a delicious paradox, the Tories' first Old Etonian Leader for 40 years set about de-toxifying the party. Inasmuch as this related to health, education and a wider range of candidates, it was an excellent idea. But there was another difficulty. Detoxification went too far.

Not enough attention has been paid to one of the most interesting intellectual strands in post-war Toryism, well before Margaret Thatcher: Tory liberalism. From 1945 onwards, many of the party's brightest youngsters were economic and social liberals. They were interested in free-market economics, back in the days when that seemed breathtakingly eccentric. They were also opposed to the death penalty and in favour of the social reforms of the 1960s. Most of us would now agree that they were right.

Yet that view is not widely shared among the electorate. Unless convoyed by some popular issue – extending the franchise or reforming the Corn Laws – liberalism has always been an elitist doctrine. Many ordinary voters feel threatened by economic and social liberalism. They would prefer a government which protected them, but not those of whom they disapprove. Today, they would be in favour of cracking down on both the bankers and the scroungers. There is an unmet consumer demand for a lot more right-wing populism. This does not mean driving homosexuals back to the closet. It does mean a tough stance on law and order, Europe and immigration.

David Cameron has found it hard to respond to this, partly because of a strategic misjudgment, partly because of the scars of previous European conflicts. The strategic error arose in the analysis of the 2005 election. Despite his attempts at populism, Michael Howard lost. Even Lord Howard concluded that the Cameroons were right to change course. But: Michael Howard had two problems. Although he is as decent and honourable a man as anyone in public life, that was not how he came across. The voters would not buy his act. Moreover, he was up against Tony Blair, the greatest political impresario since Goebbels. 

Back in the late 1970s, Chris Patten, whose subsequent Europhilia should not lead us to overlook his formidable skills as a street-fighting politician, had a dictum. We should use nice people to say hard things and nasty people to sound reassuring. Have Norman Tebbit stress the importance of the old-age pension while Jim Prior calls for severe measures to deter lawlessness. In the run-up to 2010, David Cameron, obeying the Patten Gospel, could have sounded much sterner on crime and immigration without sacrificing his detoxification strategy.

Then there was Europe. The Tory party had come close to wrecking itself on those rocks. David Cameron wanted to keep it off the agenda, if at all possible. It has not been possible. We are now in the early stages of another battle with Europe, which will end with a re-negotiation. This will help the Tories, especially as it is clear that the PM is pursuing the national interest, not some swivel-eyed obsession.

But that is not enough. Much more needs to be done on crime and immigration. Crime is irritating. On the one hand, Ken Clarke is right. It would be better to punish and reform petty criminals by enforcing a rigorous, work-based regime on them outside prison, rather than leave them to idleness in a category-four gaol. But Ken himself has been too idle and insouciant to make that case properly. A more diligent minister should replace him.

On immigration, after spending 13 years encouraging the wrong sort of migrants in order to change the character of the country, Labour have now opted for pretend populism. That is unlikely to work. Indeed, by raising the salience of the issue, it could help the Tories – as long as the government has the right policy, based on a simple principle. In limited numbers, we should encourage immigrants who will add to the GDP, and exclude all those who would add to the welfare bill and the prison population. Every day, there seems to be a story about a failed asylum seeker who has committed a serious crime – while an Indian with half-a-dozen academic distinctions in computer science is denied a visa. 

David Cameron has always been adaptable. He has the instincts of a wise cavalry commander. When possible, press on: otherwise, go round another way. It is now time for him to season his social liberalism and social generosity with a dash of populist tabasco, in pursuit of that still distant goal: the Tories back in the 40 per cents, and climbing.

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