The schoolgirls scream as David Cameron’s Jaguar sweeps into the grounds of Brine Leas school in Nantwich, Cheshire. They lift their cameras, prepare fresh sheets in autograph books and uncap pens. There is an audible gasp when the limousine pulls to a halt and a rear door opens.

The leader of the Conservative party steps out into the grey April morning smiling broadly, a tall figure in smartly tailored charcoal suit and gleaming white shirt. But instead of more screams, a low murmur of disappointment begins. That is, until a second later when the door on the other side of the Jag swings open and out steps Gary Barlow, lead singer of Take That. The girls surge forward.

In the chaos, Cameron is jostled aside as Barlow, one of the Tories’ celebrity supporters, signs the pieces of paper thrust at him. The teenagers who cannot get near the pop star in the scrum settle instead for the signature of a man who next week could be Britain’s prime minister.

You can tell that Cameron finds the whole scene comic. But he didn’t have the same look last night: after all, this is the second time in less than 24 hours that he has been relegated to the status of spectator, elbowed aside by a public rushing to embrace someone else. It is the morning of Friday, April 16. The night before, Cameron entered a studio in Manchester to take part in Britain’s first-ever televised “prime ministerial debate”, and emerged to a political landscape that had been remade.

Cameron had wanted that debate badly; he wanted it to happen, and he wanted to win it. Tory strategists thought one would naturally follow the other. Cameron had said time and again that he relished the chance to go head-to-head with Gordon Brown, a man visibly worn down by three years as prime minister. And most people believed he would win: the two leaders’ verbal jousts in the House of Commons often saw Cameron the victor; and throughout the campaign and before, he’d been viewed as the smooth operator, comfortable and confident on camera.

Instead, it was, according to one Conservative candidate, “a catastrophic mistake of historic proportions”. “There was a crushing realisation that our chances of winning a majority in the House of Commons disappeared with that debate.” Cameron, as it happened, did beat Brown. Just about. But Nick Clegg, the 43-year-old leader of the Liberal Democrats, a party whose last taste of real power was in the days of David Lloyd George in the 1920s, beat them both. Soundly.

Some voters had never heard of Clegg before the debate, let alone heard him speak, and so being given equal billing with Cameron and Brown in front of almost 10 million voters would always have offered him a big opportunity. But the overwhelming verdict of the viewers was that Clegg won hands down.

And so, in the space of 90 minutes, the way Cameron conducted the rest of the campaign became absolutely crucial. Here in Cheshire, we would get the first glimpses of how he would perform in a new, precarious and unpredictable position – and an insight into how he might handle equal and bigger pressures, should he finally secure the job he so covets.

“You were the future once,” Cameron famously taunted Tony Blair in the House of Commons. It was one of his best lines, still played on a “greatest hits” video to Tory supporters at campaign events. As Britain’s election enters its final stretch, he must hope it does not become his own epitaph.

The morning after the first TV debate, Conservative strategists are still trying to work out what went wrong. As the tour proceeds towards Prestatyn, a North Wales seaside town, William Hague, Cameron’s deputy, sits at the back of the Tory “battlebus” studying his BlackBerry. Cameron and his owlish chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, are deep in conversation. None of them yet knows quite how serious things have become. But soon some cold, hard facts start to surface from all the spin and instant-punditry: Clegg’s surge was not just an overnight sensation; it has propelled the Liberal Democrats from their usual poll rating of about 20 per cent to closer to a dangerous 30 per cent.

The news comes through on BlackBerrys and 24-hour news channels at about the same time. After a while, Cameron wanders down the narrow aisle of the bus to chat to the small travelling press corps. As usual, he is courteous and upbeat. Aides say he’s at his coolest when under greatest pressure. But it is easy to see that he does not want to linger. “We were all a bit nervous,” he tells us, perfunctorily, referring to himself, Brown and Clegg the night before.

That’s doubtless so, but most people watching agreed that Cameron looked the most nervous of the three. Now he insists: “I thought it all went very smoothly. I thought I got across the points I wanted to make.” He is charitable towards Clegg and the way he exploited his “third man” status to portray himself as the outsider. “There’s no doubt that a ‘plague on all your houses’ is a fabulous song to sing. There’s not much you can do about it – he sang it very effectively.”

Cameron asks us to remember Brown’s “negative” attacks during the debate, and says he’ll stay positive. You’ve got to wonder if he’s mimicking Barack Obama here, who insisted the same throughout a brutal primary and presidential election. But this is Britain; Lord Mandelson, Labour’s campaign chief, has dismissed such complaints from the Tories with the phrase: “Ah, diddums.”

In our short chat, Cameron also says it was “hysterically” funny the way Brown tried to cling on to Clegg’s rising star during the debate, seven times uttering the phrase: “I agree with Nick”. Fair enough, we agree.

Then he is off down the bus. But on the way to the safety of his cabin, Cameron is caught off guard by a question about policy, not politics. Why, last night, had he barely mentioned his “big idea” – building a “big society”, his alternative to the “big state”?

Many Tory candidates complain that the concept of charities, voluntary groups and social entrepreneurs taking on public policy delivery – dreamed up by Cameron’s shaven-headed, T-shirt-wearing policy guru Steve Hilton – is so airy it is impossible to explain on the doorstep. Now Cameron argues that the debate questions “were a bit gritty”. “They were subjecty subjects.” The press corps, from broadcast to print, look bewildered.

In fact, if the Tory leader cannot deploy the big society as an argument in a crucial debate, it rather backs up the view of candidates that they need a message they can deliver more easily. They badly want to be singing familiar Tory tunes on crime, immigration or Europe, but Cameron insists that these issues be kept largely out of sight, for fear of reminding the voters of the days when – in the words of Theresa May, a shadow cabinet member – the Conservatives were seen as “the nasty party”.

Cameron often argues that his party is not short of policies – rather that it has too many. On the campaign trail, he talks about his plans to let parents start their own schools, to impose tougher regulation on the banks, to take swift action to tackle Britain’s £167bn deficit, to make Westminster more efficient by cutting by 10 per cent the number of MPs … His problem is an inability to turn it all into a single, coherent message, explaining why Britain would be better under a Tory government. “If you can find out what we’re meant to be saying on the doorstep, please tell me,” says one Tory candidate. In the end, Cameron often reverts to his default message: “It’s time for a change.” But while it worked for Obama, for the Conservatives it may not be enough.

The final post-mortem after the Manchester debate by the Conservative party and its supporters took a few days. It revealed a number of flaws in Cameron’s first performance. At a basic level he failed to look directly at the camera (a simple feat accomplished by Clegg), he was over-rehearsed and reliant on American advisers (Barack Obama’s former team) who had told him to deploy homespun anecdotes. These memorably included a toe-curling one that began “I met a black man in Plymouth”, in which Cameron recounted the story of a 40-year-old who had spent 30 years in the Royal Navy and now felt “ashamed” by Britain’s “out of control” immigration system. It failed even to have the ring of truth, unless the Navy has – unbeknown to the rest of us – resumed the practice of press-ganging children to go to sea.

By the second debate, a week later in Bristol, Cameron had fixed most of these problems and delivered a much better performance, finishing neck-and-neck with Clegg. But if Cameron fails to gain a strong Commons mandate, it won’t be his fault alone. And Tory activists and candidates will be looking for a range of people to blame. Advisers who have worked closely with Cameron over the past five years should have known that a live television debate format would not play to his strengths. In 2005, in a televised showdown with his leadership rival, David Davis, Cameron lost – to the surprise of many. He appeared nervous and defensive – the same problems that bedevilled his performance in Manchester. Andy Coulson, the party’s £270,000-a-year media chief, says it would have been impossible to exclude Clegg from the debates, but Coulson was one of the key negotiators who agreed the format, and will be near the front of the queue if recriminations fly.

Hilton, Cameron’s strategy director and prime architect of the modernising message, will also be in the firing line. Ken Clarke, shadow business secretary, claimed last week that not a single person had mentioned Hilton’s big society idea to him on the doorstep, adding that the concept had been dropped into the campaign far too late to have any impact. Tensions between Hilton, who wants to keep the campaign positive, and Coulson – a former tabloid newspaper editor who would prefer a harder edge – have led Tory staffers to rename their shared office “the love shack”.

George Osborne, the campaign chief, will also shoulder some blame, should things not go to plan. As co-author with Cameron of the Tory modernisation strategy – and one of the leader’s closest friends – the right wing of the party will see defeat as proof the Conservatives should have stuck to a more traditional, Thatcherite message.

The tensions have by no means yet reached the level of bickering that disfigured, say, Hillary Clinton’s run for the Democratic nomination, but Cameron knows he must keep his team tight as the pressure mounts. He won’t want to face the accusations Clinton has: that stronger leadership of the campaign team might have earned her the right to lead the country.

Seen from the press seat on the campaign bus, however, the real problem is not the advice Cameron has been receiving, but that he has singularly failed to recapture the raw power of “change” that he embodied when, in 2005, he took over leadership of a party exhausted by eight years in opposition and three successive election defeats. Five years ago, it was still the party of Margaret Thatcher; Cameron believed it could – and should – be something different. One journalist recalls watching him address party activists at a leadership rally in Norfolk in 2005: “He told them that everything they had ever believed in was total rubbish and they applauded every word.” Now at just 43 – the same age as Clegg – Cameron’s freshness has been eroded by five years as party leader and the cheers are harder to come by.

Up close, Cameron still looks remarkably fresh. The relentless grind of campaigning has generated bags under his eyes, but he still has the ruddy glow of health that seems to attach itself to the English upper classes. By the time he bounds on to the stage in Prestatyn to address party activists in the Scala cinema, the audience has been warmed up by a video showing his apparently inexorable march towards power – larking with the Dalai Lama, serious with Obama, besting Blair in the Commons

Today, the big society theme is wheeled out again. Having failed to deploy his weapon the previous night, Cameron insists it is “a hand grenade lobbed at the idea of an establishment that knows best”. But the Tories in the refurbished cinema do not want to talk about the big society: ominously, they want to ask about Nick Clegg. “I think you should start fighting him back,” says one woman. She thinks Cameron should be scrapping for Number 10 instead of assuming “prime minister in waiting” gravitas. “You have to fight, fight, fight – and we are right behind you.”

Cameron’s reluctance to take off the gloves reflects his concern that it would play into the Lib Dem’s hands, allowing Clegg to play up his status as the outsider the “old parties” want to crush. The Tory leader also knows he has a supportive and highly partisan press, ready to do the dirty work for him. Indeed, within days, The Sun, Daily Mail and The Telegraph are running stories accusing Clegg of “Nazi slurs” and running what the Lib Dems say are “smear” stories about his expenses claims. One journalist involved in the attacks jokes: “Do you know, if you touch Clegg’s face, he turns into a lizard?”

Cameron’s bus is now heading south through the low, rolling hills of the Welsh Marches, towards Wolverhampton, a highly marginal West Midlands town. Here, Cameron has his last engagement of the day: an encounter with employees in an Asda supermarket. His ability to relate to a small audience is impressive. Stood on a palette, he takes questions from staff and ranges easily across subjects, from the scourge of cheap cider to the cost of petrol to the need to control Britain’s £167bn deficit. Cameron’s ability to get on with people is partly down to the fact that he appears to enjoy living in modern Britain – a feeling that previous Tory leaders, such as William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, failed to project.

He also has an easy manner and a quick wit, which means that his campaign managers are comfortable with him going into potentially hostile terrain. By contrast, Brown’s team was so determined to shield its man from critics that the early part of his campaign seemed to involve him meeting only Labour supporters.

On the campaign trail, Cameron made light of the fact that he was being followed by a man dressed as a chicken – a stunt by the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror – by pulling off the bird’s head. When he was hit by an egg the next day in Cornwall, Cameron deadpanned: “Now I know what came first: it was the chicken not the egg.” But he also admits that the market for young and smooth politicians might have been wrecked by Tony Blair, who ran as an outsider offering change and ended tarnished by the blood and alleged deceit of Iraq. “Don’t underestimate the extent to which the public feels unbelievably bruised and battered by feeling so let down after 1997,” Cameron told the FT last month.

That mood of sullen resentment was illustrated vividly on a campaign visit to Varndean sixth-form college in Brighton, where his impeccable manners and open-necked shirt cut little ice with the students, some of whom described him afterwards as “arrogant” and “too smooth”. The mood was not helped by Tory officials threatening to eject a student wearing a spoof T-shirt with Gordon Brown challenging Cameron to “Step outside, posh boy”.

There is often an air of artificiality about Cameron’s campaign events, intended to prove how modern and inclusive his party has become, while inadvertently revealing the opposite. The comments by Chris Grayling, shadow home secretary, that some cities in the north of England resembled the crime-ridden anarchy of Baltimore depicted in The Wire were widely ridiculed. When campaigning in the northern town of Bury – a Tory target seat that most certainly does not resemble inner-city Baltimore – Cameron was introduced by Sayeeda Warsi, one of the few Asian or black members of his party to reach its higher echelons. “For those people who say the Conservative party has not changed, I say look at Sayeeda Warsi,” he proclaimed.

The truth of Cameron’s Conservative party is that it resembles too closely both Labour and the Lib Dems in being run predominantly by white, middle-class males. At a meeting with business leaders in Kennington, south London, a Cameron aide was assigned to rearrange the people waiting for him on a spiral staircase. Two photogenic young women were pushed to the front, alongside an older Asian woman and a black man. The middle-aged white men in suits who made up most of the business audience shuffled backwards, out of camera range. Both the women, who nodded and smiled throughout Cameron’s speech, are 22-year-old Tory activists.

Cameron is at his best when he is at his most authentic. As he speaks from a palette in Wolverhampton’s Asda, it is immediately clear why, in spite of his problems during the campaign, he stands on the brink of power. In his shirt-sleeves, he drops in knowing references to football and popular culture and displays an impressive grasp of detail. His optimism and good humour shine, even under the fluorescent lighting at the end of a tough day. “I’m very impressed,” says Emma Parkes, a manager at the store. “He’s much more laid back than I’d expected.” Karen Finch, who works in the grocery department, had feared Cameron would be a “toff”, but now says “in real life he’s a normal person – he came across really well.”

Cameron bounds off to do one last round of television interviews and then jumps into his Jaguar for the long journey back to London, leaving converts in his wake. “I thought he came across better today than on TV last night,” says Linda Smith, from the clothing department. That’s not hard, you could argue. And time is running out for Cameron to deploy his charm on undecided Britons and persuade them that he still represents the “real change” the country seems to crave.

As he knows better than anyone, the stakes are high: Thursday’s election represents the Conservatives’ best chance of power in a generation. Victory on May 6 would be a ringing vindication of Cameron’s five-year plan to restore his party to its status as one of the western world’s most formidable election-winning machines.

Defeat would be, frankly, unthinkable for the Tory leader. Says one disaffected Tory MP: “Cameron would be out of the door and the rest of his gang with him.”

George Parker is the FT’s political editor, Jean Eaglesham its chief political correspondent. Some reporting for this piece came from Andy Bounds, Kiran Stacey and Matthew Engel, who are all covering the election for the FT.

Read the FT Weekend Magazine’s other election coverage, including a history of the debates, the Christian influence on the Conservative party and a profile of Phillip Blond, one of the men helping craft Tory policy.

For all the FT’s election coverage, visit

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