David Cameron’s constituency, which he has held since 2001, is Witney, a comfortable West Oxfordshire district of pretty villages and rolling fields on the fringes of the Cotswolds.

One Friday last month, a few days before his third child was born, I went with him on a constituency visit to the Open Doors charity, which was set up after the second world war to protect Christians around the world from persecution.

Inside the charity’s modern, office-like rooms, people were at first a little awkward with the celebrity in their midst, unlike the breezily cheerful Cameron himself. He made a joke about having “just put on my tie”, an allusion to his habit of appearing without a tie at public events. When someone asked him about the Liberal Democrats’ victory in the Dunfermline by-election the previous day, in which the already small Tory vote had fallen even further, he made a face and said, “Yes, well, I went up there. I think I met all of our voters.”

The visit began with a short prayer followed by a powerful and at times horrifying talk by Eddie Lyle, the charity’s earnest and forceful chief executive, about the sometimes murderous hounding of Christians, mainly by communist or Islamic regimes.

When I talked to Cameron at his Witney headquarters a little later, I mentioned this powerful presentation and asked Cameron if he was a Christian. He had been autographing dozens of bottles of Scotch that were to be given out as prizes at the constituency ball that evening. He put these aside for a minute, and said: “Yes, I’m a little more than an Easter and Christmas Christian. I go to church about once a month - so I’m a typical Church of England, slightly laid-back Christian.”

This is, in microcosm, both the appeal and the mystery of Cameron as he approaches his first 100 days as leader of the British Conservative party.

At 39, he is the fifth leader in nine years of a party that likes to see itself as the oldest and most successful in the world, but which has fallen on hard times with the rise of New Labour. Now, he is borrowing from Labour’s success to shift his party further towards the centre than it has moved in recent times. This week, he announced he would ask all party members to vote on a personal manifesto of eight core aims - from enhancing the environment to making poverty history - to make clear the break from the party’s Thatcherite past.

The question is: can Cameron’s ties-off, get-real style put his demoralised party back together, especially when many of the true believers in its ranks are unsure of their laid-back new leader? Can he really, as he says, retain state services in health and education, put economic stability before tax cuts, put more women in parliament, and still be the true conservative his supporters and friends insist he is?

And can he, in the face of some open discontent, remould the Tory party into a centrist grouping that brings it much more in line - except on its view of Europe - with the continental Christian Democrat and right-of-centre parties now in power in many EU states, most of which accept high levels of state provision and social partnership?

This was a question in the forefront of people’s minds last month, when about 200 members of the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group gathered at Kettners restaurant in Soho. A panel of speakers had been assembled, including the former Conservative MP and columnist Michael Brown and the prominent conservative commentator Bruce Anderson. They had been asked to discuss whether Cameron was “New Labour lite” or whether the party hadn’t really moved to the left at all but didn’t want to scare voters before the next election with unpopular low-tax, small-government policies.

Brown said he was sure that Cameron “had Conservatism in his genes”. As for the party, he said: “I would cheerfully vote for the Tories if they promised to abolish the NHS and bring back grammar schools, but we won’t get anywhere with that. David Cameron has recognised that we must change the record.” Bruce Anderson had similar thoughts: “I don’t believe DC is going to rule out any radical option on health and education. But first we must persuade Joe Public that we’re on his side.”

On one reading of these comments, it seemed that men who had made a profession out of writing about the mendacity of Tony Blair were cheerfully counselling Cameron to fool Joe Public into believing the Tory party had gone centrist when it hadn’t. Or - a more charitable interpretation - that the commentators were speaking of an agenda that was as yet unfinished and capable of many interpretations.

Brown and Anderson are not alone in thinking Cameron is far more conservative than voters might believe. Around the time of the Conservative Way Forward evening, I spoke to Norman Lamont, Tory chancellor from 1990-1993, who gave Cameron his first job in frontline politics as a political adviser in the early 1990s. “I think that David is a fundamentally pretty conservative person,” he said. “He’s had to make a number of tactical demarches to alter perceptions. The trouble is, of course, that his words will be examined in later years.”

Cameron himself, however, insists the shift to the centre within the party is very real. As he went back to signing the whisky bottles in Witney, I put it to him that he was more concerned with image change than with policy formation. He replied, with a slight edge to his voice, that “one of the things that winds me up is you saying there is no substance at all. Well, in health, I have abolished our patients’ passport policy [subsidies for patients choosing private care]. On the economy I’ve set out a policy of sharing the proceeds of growth between taxes and spending across an economic cycle.”

He added that his party had to change because society had changed. “I grew up in 1980s politics when there was this massive division between Labour and Conservative politics, by its nature very confrontational. Politics has changed since then. Now, genuinely, the Labour party has changed and the parties are closer together, so a more reasonable dialogue makes perfect sense.”

I put to him a view expressed by some of his colleagues, most notably Theresa May, who used to chair the party, that the Tories were perceived as the “nasty party”.

“I never used that word,” said Cameron, “We’re not. But yes, the Conservative party has had some problems of perception, and what my whole leadership campaign was about was letting us change the party to show very, very clearly that we’re in it for everybody, not just for the rich, that we’re a compassionate party…Post-Thatcher, the Conservative party allowed itself to be painted into this corner of lacking compassion - which I think is unfair. The change in the country and people’s aspirations go to the agenda on quality of life and environment and globalisation and global poverty. People’s concerns have got much broader.” (Cameron has tried to meet these wider concerns by asking the environmental campaigner Zac Goldsmith, and the anti-poverty activist Sir Bob Geldof, to advise the party on these issues).

Earlier this year, I watched Cameron make the same point in a speech to the Demos think-tank, in which he said that Blair had accepted the Thatcher revolution. “Tony Blair understood this - profoundly understood it. And people could see he understood it. So they could see that New Labour really was new.” I was only a few yards away from Cameron as he spoke, and he paused at this point, emphasising the word “profoundly” with a hand gesture.

It is unusual for an opposition leader to compliment a prime minister to this extent, but Cameron’s supporters say it is no more than intellectual honesty, the quality Cameron and his closest aides say they prize most highly.

Cameron may indeed be changing the Conservative party, but he remains an indisputable member of the British upper class. He and his political circle are formidably bright and posh. If measured in terms of elite education and achievement, they are the brightest and best-bred leadership group of any British party since the last war. Apart from Cameron himself (Eton and Oxford), there is the shadow chancellor, George Osborne (St Paul’s and Oxford); the MP Ed Vaizey (St Paul’s, Oxford and the London bar); the policy review chairman Oliver Letwin (Eton, Cambridge and London Business School); the shadow education secretary David Willetts (Oxford, Treasury, head of a think-tank) and the shadow housing minister Michael Gove (Oxford, Times columnist, chairman of a think-tank).

It is difficult to know when Cameron’s aptitude for politics first manifested itself. A close friend who was at college with him and supported him during the leadership contest, but who did not wish to be identified, said that “his interest in politics was academic. He was fascinated by the theories of politics. He never as far as I know went to Conservative Club events; I don’t remember him going to the union. But, by the time he got the seat, he had become a natural leader of his group of political friends - Osborne, Gove, Vaizey. He and his wife became a magnet and he was above all respected for his judgment.”

Cameron’s tutor at Brasenose College was the political scientist Vernon Bogdanor, who says: “He’s not changed from the student I knew.” According to Bogdanor, “he’s non-ideological - like Tony Blair - and has a hinterland like Blair, unlike [Gordon] Brown. His conservatism is based on small ‘l’ liberalism: he thinks people should be left alone to get on with their lives, which is the basis for his Euroscepticism. He thinks Europeans interfere too much in people’s lives. He came to see me a little while ago, during the campaign. He borrowed a book called The Boundaries of the State in Modern Britain. It’s typical of him, he reads widely.”

A passage in that book, a collection of essays edited by Simon Green and Richard Whiting, sums up Cameron’s dilemma. Lamenting the lack of a political theory that either justifies or opposes a large welfare state, it says: “It may perhaps be the case that, just as happy families have no history, so nations that feel themselves just and contented have no need for anything as abstract and artificial as systematic ‘political thought’.” It seems that Cameron has examined his nation, found it is contented enough with the size of the state, and feels that he must adjust his conservative-liberal political thoughts to cope with his fellow citizens’ contentment.

Bogdanor also remembers Cameron for being exceptionally bright. “He got a first. I just looked up his marks the other day, and he got a distinguished first. Very well organised, courteous in an old-fashioned way.”

Lamont says similar things about Cameron’s personality: “A very likable person. When with me in the Treasury, everyone liked him. He takes a lot of trouble with people. David is a sharp, quick-thinking person, who is also profoundly pragmatic.” He thinks Cameron will raise his party still further when Blair leaves the scene. “No disrespect to the chancellor [Gordon Brown], but David has a star quality which the former doesn’t.”

Cameron’s longest stint in a non-political job came between 1994 and 2001, when he was corporate affairs director for the broadcasting company Carlton Communications. Carlton’s former chairman Michael Green - who stepped down in 2003 after Carlton merged with Granada - once described Cameron as “board material”. But some of the journalists to whom Cameron spoke at the time have been uncomplimentary, notably Jeff Randall of The Daily Telegraph, who has described him as a boardroom lackey. “At Carlton, he only said what he meant when it was expedient to do so.”

An executive of the company at the time, senior to Cameron, told me, on condition of anonymity: “Well, he had to present the best case for the company. But I didn’t see any of what Randall said. On the contrary. If I had been asked to give him a reference, I would have said he was a man of principle and of good character.”

Regardless of how Cameron was viewed then, his time at Carlton was an invaluable background for a man for whom - avowedly and openly - image is central. Cameron, though clearly a talented innovator, did not create the role he is now playing. Rather, it has fallen to him to reshape his party into something seen to be fit enough (and nice enough) to govern. But New Conservatism was created for another man entirely, nearly a decade ago. It was created for Michael Portillo.

The man who had positioned himself as a super-Thatcherite in the Major cabinet moved to the party’s far left after the shocking loss of his North London seat of Enfield Southgate in the 1997 election.

I talked to Portillo on the telephone as he was travelling on a bus, his method of travel itself a sign of his new persona - open, liberal and concerned about the living conditions of the poor. He has even tried to experience these conditions, in a 2003 television programme in which he lived for a week on the state benefits of a “single mum” in Liverpool.

Portillo told me that modernisation had been a suit cut for him. “The strategy we developed after the 1997 [election loss] was really all the things you have seen Cameron do,” he said. “The perception we had was that most Tories didn’t know how fundamentally unpopular the Tories were. When people saw Tories on TV, they believed they were in power for their own interests and their class interests. They were white and middle-class, public-school educated, not interested in public services, and showed a lack of magnanimity.”

Portillo and his allies - who included Francis Maude, now the party chairman - thought William Hague, John Major’s replacement, was on their side. But “he kept being pulled back by the right,” said Portillo, and resigned as leader after the 2001 election defeat. (He is now the shadow foreign secretary.) “The whole thing,” said Portillo over the roar of the bus, “has been sitting there waiting for the right person - pretty fully tailored, waiting for someone to wear it. It was in the cupboard.”

The need to succeed at the top of British politics today seems to demand not just communications skills but the ability to appear to be a nice person. Blair has done nice for more than a decade. In Cameron, he now has a competitor in this most precious of arts. Many of the worries New Labour has about Blair’s designated successor, Brown, concern his perceived lack of ability to play the part of the regular guy.

At the Conservatives’ annual Black and White Ball last month, after New Woman magazine had just voted Cameron one of the world’s 100 sexiest men - albeit the 92nd - he told the audience a joke: “I asked my wife the other night, ‘How does it feel to be in bed with the 92nd sexiest man in the world?’ She looked a bit embarrassed, and said, ‘Well, it was a long time ago and only happened once.’” This made me think of the interview in The Sun last year in which Cherie and Tony Blair had jokingly claimed they “did it” five times a night.

The Conservative leader had been suavely jokey, the prime minister grossly so, but both had made their private life a public occasion. The thought of Brown, a man with a deep hatred of private intrusion, doing the same is hard to entertain.

New Labour dealt with the media by imagining itself as a swimmer navigating waters thick with piranhas. Great care was taken not to bleed, and even greater care taken to keep the vicious fish well fed. The New Conservatives take a different tack. In seeking to run with the grain of contemporary Britain, they have decided that it’s no use complaining about the media. Better to treat them as elemental forces that do what they do and will always be there.

My mentor on this issue was Michael Gove, one of the bright, youngish men surrounding Cameron, who entered parliament last year as the MP for Surrey Heath, and who is already a shadow minister. “Labour were scared by what happened to Neil Kinnock [its leader from 1983-1992],” he said. “They wanted to try to neutralise the Tory press by being charming. Our problem is different. The Tory press has manifested a disdain and contempt for weakness in our ranks. It was obvious in the case of William Hague: the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph would say, you must do this and stand up to that. When he did, and it didn’t cut Labour’s lead, they said he was pathetic.”

According to Gove, if the party or Cameron conforms to the expectations of the Tory press, its representatives will “needlessly restrict” themselves. “You will be controlled by people who are responsible only to the market. The mistake is to truckle. You must work out what is required. TV is, in any case, the most important medium, not the press. If you do certain things clearly, they will get through. The BBC is leftwing, and it’s true it reflects the Guardian view of the world, especially on the US and the war in Iraq. On the other hand, the BBC is not so unusual now; the person who works for the BBC is more representative of the UK today than he or she was 20 years ago.”

One institution the Conservative reformers think is not representative of the UK today is their own party, particularly when it comes to the number of women in its parliamentary ranks. Only 9 per cent of the Tory MPs are women. The Liberal Democrats have 16 per cent and Labour 28 per cent. In the vaulting atrium of Portcullis House, the new building housing MPs’ offices and committee rooms, I talked to Anne Jenkin, whose grandmother, Joan Davidson, was for a few years after the war the only female Conservative MP, and whose husband, Bernard Jenkin MP, is the party’s deputy chairman.

Jenkin is a compact, witty and intensely energetic woman, whose passion is to get more Conservative women into parliament. She formed a group, Women2Win, after consulting an academic expert, Sarah Childs of Bristol University, who produced a report after the 2005 election arguing for some form of coercive mechanism to get local selection committees to choose more female candidates.

Jenkin says that David Cameron has grasped the idea that forceful intervention is necessary. “Women are at a huge disadvantage,” she said. “The selection procedure is set up to suit men who have been trained to be fluent. And the women in the selection committee often don’t like the professional women with no kids, or a nanny, who want to be elected.” The mechanism Cameron has settled on is to construct an A-list of candidates, half of whom will be women, from which constituencies will be “encouraged” to choose. How coercive that encouragement is has yet to be decided. “It depends how you sell it,” says Jenkin. “Before they choose they will see a video from David saying that we want this party to reflect the country. But in the end there probably does have to be a bit of coercion.”

Some in the Labour party - notably its deputy leader, John Prescott - want to challenge Cameron with a class-war strategy. But many of Prescott’s own people are not convinced it will run, including the Labour MP and former Europe minister Denis MacShane, who often met Cameron in the Commons gym and who urged him to stand for his party’s leadership. “That’s all gone,” says MacShane. “No one cares. He was by far the best of them, the most able. It stood out. That’s what’s important.”

While image has been dominant in Cameron’s first months, he is right to insist that there have been policy changes. The most controversial has been on a relatively obscure issue: his pledge to take the 26 Conservative members of the European Parliament out of the group to which they are affiliated - the European People’s party (EPP) - because it is, as its charter says, “committed to a Federal Europe”. He is determined, as he told me, to go ahead. Nick Boles, who runs Policy Exchange, a right-of-centre think-tank, says: “Coming out of the EPP is important. It’s necessary because we don’t want to be associated with a group that powerfully disagrees with us and to which we yet belong. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s an issue no one has heard of in an institution they don’t care about. There will be a fuss for three days.”

Elsewhere in the Conservative policy-making apparatus, is the sound of frameworks being constructed: some as uncomfortable for the Labour party as for the Tories. Oliver Letwin, the MP in charge of the party’s policy review (mocked as “Oliver Leftwing” by some Conservatives), told The Daily Telegraph in December that the party should not stop at relieving poverty. “Of course inequality matters. Of course, it should be an aim to narrow the gap between rich and poor. It is more than a matter of safety nets,” he said.

David Willetts, the Tory education spokesman, outlined the party’s philosophy for me in his parliamentary offices one evening: “The Tory tradition is personal freedom, personal responsibility and good economic conduct. The purpose of our policy review is to reach reconciliation. We want to reconcile social justice and individual achievement. There is a Conservative agenda about strengthening society, strengthening the family, strengthening the role of schools. And when we criticise business [as Cameron has], the idea is also a Conservative one. It is that, if you lift the burden on business, then the question must arise - what are the obligations beyond what is legally required? It is the morality that should adhere to a powerful position in society, beyond merely keeping on the right side of the law.”

But what do the traditionalists make of all this? To judge their mood, I went to see the man who has more Tory tradition in his blue blood than any other figure in the party.

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, the 7th Marquess of Salisbury, is the most notable name in British Conservative politics: his ancestors were chief ministers to Queen Elizabeth I. The third marquess, also called Robert, was leader of the Conservative party and prime minister three times during Queen Victoria’s reign. The current marquess is a man in his late fifties who used to be a Tory MP in South Dorset and who, taking the title of Baron Cecil of Essendon, was made Tory leader in the Lords by John Major.

He has retired from parliament but not from politics. He spends his time and money trying to build up regional Conservative centres to replace the scattered and often isolated agents who run local associations. I saw him, surrounded by spaniels, at his town house in Chelsea and found him delighted that his party was on the up but short of being convinced about its new leader.

“There are two problems people have with the new line,” he said. “One is that there are great problems in the state sector. I mean, children coming out of school often can’t read or write. The NHS is seen as a disaster. So it’s odd to say that all the systems must be kept. Second, they feel that the A-list - more blacks and women and so on - is cutting against local autonomy. Is this consistent with picking a good local candidate, people ask. Francis Maude’s point is that the party should reflect the country as a whole. Now that’s fine, but at what cost to local decision?”

Since Salisbury is so grand, I asked him about an issue that makes the Cameronians feel nervous, judging by the frequency with which it comes up in conversation. Both Cameron and his wife are themselves grand: he is a fifth cousin twice removed of the Queen and Samantha Cameron is the daughter of Sir Reginald Sheffield, whose best-known ancestor, John Sheffield, the first Duke of Buckingham and Normandy, built a house in 1703 called Buckingham House, now known as Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s London residence. Labour’s leaders, though mainly middle class, are not in that league. Did these upper-class accoutrements, I asked Salisbury, represent a disadvantage in an age of inverted snobbery?

The 7th Marquess smiled. “On being upper crust? That’s something I can speak about with some authority. You know, the schizophrenia of the British is extraordinary. I’m old Etonian, went to Oxford and I worked in a US bank, yet I fought the election in South Dorset and, once in, even the Labour people liked me. I don’t think it matters in the least, now. As long as you do the work.”

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