Opinion: Mixed messages for the Conservatives

David Cameron, approaching the end of his first 12 months as Tory leader, would have got a boost from a poll in last weekend's Mail on Sunday.

Dave, apparently, is seen by voters as way ahead of Gordon Brown and Ming Campbell in coming up with fresh ideas, and the person who would ‘make the best PM' at the next election.

And there was more supposedly good news for Cameron last week as Tory modernisers celebrated the widely reported fact that a young woman had been selected to fight a safe seat - even better, she was Asian.

What a coup for Cameron, vindicating his team's suggestion to replace Winston Churchill with Polly Toynbee as a role model.

What most of the media did not report, though, was that Priti Patel got selected because she made a ‘hang 'em and flog 'em' speech, tinged with heavy anti-European rhetoric. It was the party faithful who lapped it up and endorsed her, not those toeing the Cameron - ‘hug a hoodie' - line.

And just as the ‘Notting Hill set' are publicly crowing about Patel's success, privately they will be horrified at a separate poll - in last Sunday's ­Observer - showing Cameron's ‘satisfaction' level among voters to be lower than the PM's.

More worryingly for them, he is not soaring ahead in the polls that really matter - the ones that show how people intend to vote. This is strange because Labour has a lame-duck leader and a successor struggling to forge his own identity.

Even the best of these polls shows the Tories only marginally ahead of Labour - and at this stage of the election cycle, with Labour yet to elect its new leader, Cameron still has a big uphill struggle.

The problem, it seems, is Cameron's lack of ‘clarity'. This is partly explained by the sensible tactic of waiting for his policy commissions to report and not announcing ideas too far ahead of the election. But that doesn't mean he cannot ‘float' new ideas - if he doesn't, people will just believe he's a wishy-washy green with no substance. With Brown certain to replace Blair there could be no worse criticism.

But as Cameron dumps right-wing policies for seemingly little movement in the polls, there may well be a bigger backlash in store from the traditional ­Tories who voted for the right-wing Patel. More importantly, their media friends will surely turn on Cameron if he fails to deliver.

That inevitable onslaught is why I had a £50 bet with someone at the recent PRWeek Awards that Labour will triumph at the next election. The problem is, I can't remember who it was with.
charlie.whelan@haymarket.com

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