David Cameron's political views have deep roots in defeat. Despite his confident, optimistic demeanour, his earliest political experiences were dominated by adversity. By the time he joined the Conservative Research Department, Margaret Thatcher was embattled, A couple of years later, she was overthrown. Her successor, John Major, was equally embattled. Although there was a brief respite after the 1992 election, that ended with Black Wednesday and Britain's expulsion from the ERM. Thereafter, the Major Premiership became a Calvary.
David Cameron had gone to work for Norman Lamont, as a Special Advisor. But Norman was sacked: a casualty of Black Wednesday. Mr Cameron moved on to Michael Howard. Mr Howard, an incisive and thoughtful populist, appeared to be telling the voters what they wanted to hear. Much good it did him. He had a full share in the Goivernment's unpopularity. Nothing seemed to work.
That was a valuable corrective for an apprentice poltician. "To be young was very Heaven". If you are in your mid-Twenties, advising the Chancellor or the Home Secretary, you have clearly been fast-tracked. You might well assume that further, indeed endless, success is guaranteed. Everything could easily seem golden. Not in the post-1992 Tory party, where the motto appeared to be: "What can go wrong, will go wrong".
All this did have one advantage. It dispelled complacency. David Cameron and his friends knew that they had signed up for hard thinking. By 1997, he was part of a group of very bright young Tories who were determined to ensure that their party would return to power as soon as possible. George Osborne, Michael Gove, Steve Hilton, George Bridges and several others spent long hours around each others' kitchen tables, arguing and planning.
To begin with, they underestimated the task. Most Tories did. Tony Benn had described Neil Kinnock as a vacuum surrounded by charisma. That seemed equally applicable to Tony Blair. He had beguiled many voters with the promise of unlimited candy-floss – but that would surely end with mass stomach-ache and a renewed appetite for the roast beef of old Britain, as supplied by William Hague. When that failed to happen, the youngsters were forced to some unwelcome reassessments.
Many of them were involved with – or at least privy to – the party's opinion poll research. It provided plenty of reasons for gloom. Present a focus group with a new policy, and there might be agreement and even enthusiasm. Tell them that it was a Tory policy and all that would evaporate: "If the Tories like it, there must be a catch". Slowly, the able young came to a reluctant conclusion: that the Tory brand was toxic, and that this was not a recent development.
Since 1964, political demography had been moving in the Tories' favour. Home ownership, middle-class self identification, private pension arrangements et all: up. Council house tenancies, trade union membership, manual labour: down. But so was the Tory share of the vote. Since 1964, it had been in decline. This was masked by Margaret Thatcher's victories, when a divided opposition enabled her to win large majorities with a lesser vote share than Alec Home's losing total in 1964.
So what had gone wrong? There was a simple explanation. Just because you had become middle-class, it did not mean that you had come to like the Tory party. You might be working in the public sector and distrust the Tories's instincts. You might intend to use the NHS and state schools. Margaret Thatcher's body language might well have given you the impression that anyone who could not afford to go private was a failure.
She created another problem for her successors. Put the electorate on a psychiatrist's couch, ask it what it associates with Maggie, and it will not be many seconds before you hear the word "cuts". There were no cuts. Throughout the Thatcher years, there was a steady increase in spending on the public services. In practice – though she would never have used the phrase – she believed in sharing the proceeds of growth. The next few Tory leaders merely had to suffer the process of myth.
Initially, David Cameron was slow to accept that the toxicity problem was so severe. That changed after some opinion research commissioned in 2003/4. Focus groups were asked whether they wanted tax cuts. The reply was emphatic: "No". Dumbfounded by that response, the youngsters were convinced that they must have asked the question in the wrong way. They tried again: same response. A third time – and they got the message. If the Tories offered tax cuts, the voters would not believe them. But they would assume that the Tories intended to use the non-existent tax cuts as a excuse to cut public services.
Around the same time, some voters were asked to sketch a Tory politician and a Labour one. The Labour man was depicted in a dark-blue suit, talking into a mobile phone. The Tory was enormously fat, wearing tweeds and green wellies. THe Tory party had a problem.
This was exacerbated by Blairism. There had been an old adage; that the Tory/Labour conflict was a battle between a man with no heart and a man with no head. In any such contest, the heartless man has a huge advantage, especially when the headless fellow also wants to nationalise the corner-shop. Then came Tony Blair, who seemed to have a heart and a head: the classic man in a classless suit, talking into his mobile. The Tories were in trouble.
By 2005, David Cameron was convinced that it was no use just waiting for the pendulum to swing while girding your loins for one more heave. The party had to change. The "cuts"
issue had to be defanged. As all Tory governments had increased spending on the public services, why not ensure that the next Tory government would earn some electoral credit for doing so? He was determined that the Tories should never again be seen as a party that was hostile to the public services on which most people depend. He was equally determined to change the party's appearance. He wanted his Parliamentary party to look radically different: more females, more members of racial and sexual minorities. In short, he wanted a Tory party with the widest possible appeal. If someone had not got there first, one could describe this as new Toryism.
There is a delicious paradox. from 1951 until 1964, the Premiership was held by an Old Harrovian, succeeded by three Old Etonians. That era seemed to have ended when Ted Heath replaced Alec Home. For most of the next four decades, it was assumed that it would be very hard for an OE to lead the party. Forty years on, one did, and promptly set about modernising it.
This did not seem so surprising to Mr Cameron's old friends, nor to those who understood his background, as opposed to the caricature versions. On his wife's side and his mother's one, David Cameron has aristocratic connections: not one his father's. Ian Cameron was a member of a working class; the upper-middle class. These are people who apire to a comfortable way of life in a pleasant house, but we are talking old rectory, not stately home. They expect to pay a lot to educate their children. All this costs money, and that means hard work. Despite his disability – his legs stopped growing when he was twelve years old – Ian Cameron was a hard-working and successful stockbroker. He was also immensely cheerful.
That cannot always have been easy. Although highly intelligent, Ian was not excessively intellectual. Given the chance, he would have spent many more of his leisure hours out of doors. Denied that chance, he cheered on his sons. As David Cameron always says, for his father, the glass was always half-full, never half-empty. Wherever he was, he dispensed good cheer. No-one was less inclined to self-pity.
David Cameron absorbed a lot of lessons from his parents, who taught by example, not by Polonius's prosy precepts. The first was the importance of work. The second, that life ought to be fun. The third, that we all have duties. If you are doing well, put something back, to help those who are not doing so well.
It is not a complex creed. Nor is David Cameron a complex character. Apart from his intellect, he has three great assets which enable him to cope with the Premiership. The first is stamina: buckets of it. The second is coolness. Many Prime Ministers have to work themselves up into a heightened psychological state in oirder to do the job: Blair. Thatcher and Churchill are obvious examples. That is not true of David Cameron. The third is the ability to organise his time. When confronted by a complicated question, he will work away at it, listening intently to the arguments – and probing them. But when he has taken a decision, there is no self-doubt. He just moves on to the next troublesome question. Unlike Gordon Brown, he use his own -and other people's – time efficiently. The nonsensical suggestion that he is a serial chillaxer aroused incredulity among those who observe him in No.10. He always ploughs the long furrows that go with the job. He is also determined to see a lot of his wife and children: why not?
One guest witnessed a typical Saturday morning breakfast at Chequers. The Prime Minister was working through a red box, occasionally breaking off to tell little Nancy to eat her own scrambled egg and leave her brother's alone. A little later, going to the PM's study to say good-bye, the visitor was informed by an excited Nancy that "Daddy's on the phone to President Karzai." The country does not suffer because we have a PM who can compartmentalise his time.
Nor because we have a Tory leader who is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. His opinions owe far more to instinct than to agonising. This is not a politician in the grip of a theory. He is a man who believes in Britain, and in making things work. He is a synthesist, not a divider. This is true in his private life. largely brought up in the countryside, david cameron has rural oxfordshire in his soul. but he is equally at home in contemporary London.
The synthesising tendency also manifests itself in his views. Many Tories would like to force a choice: tax cuts, or more money on the public sevices. Mr Cameron regards that as an absurd and unnecessary dichotomy. Of course, Gladstone had a formidable point: money is best left to fructify in the pockets of the people. But since Gladstone's day, the demand for public goods has greatly increased, and why not? The responsibility of a modern government is to ensure that public money is spent in a manner that ensures value for money, and that taxes ae cut whenever it is safe to do so.
But there is one obvious difficulty. A man who has inherited to the full his father's generous spirit, David Cameron was designed to be a Prime Minister for generous times, so that his Downing St would have more than a hint of Santa Claus. That cannot be; it will b e a long time before we next hear the jingle of reinderr bells over Whitehall. Hence the restiveness in his own party. A lot of Tories have not forgiven him for failing to win a majority at the last Election. Others are still suspicious of the cameronian coup which captured him the leadership in 2005. Glass half empty, glass half full: many Tory activists think that their leader is only a meniscus. A lot of them also seem to believe that there is a simple solution to the economy, and to Europe. They cannot understand why the government holds back.
It is never a good idea for a leader to be too grown up for his party. The last one who managed to do so in an untroubled fashion was Salisbury, in a vastly more deferential age. Yet it did not even work for his nephew and successor, Balfour. The next Tory PM to be far too grown up for his backbenchers was John Major. They took their revenge. If the Tory party still practised the old-fashioned virtues of loyalty and self-discipline, it would not be necessary for its leaders to truckle to the unworthy. But we are where we are. Mr Cameron must find a way of humouring the naive, the excitable and the simple-minded.
That is not the sole purpose of Wednesday's speech. This is not just a Tory Leader in his own Conference hall. This is a Prime Minister, with a nation to rally: with a country to convince that he is the pilot who can weather the storm. If he can succeed in those simple tasks, it will of course be easier to sweep his party along behind him. It will be a crucial speech and a crucial test.