Equality, Croquet, Billy Bragg and Me: There Is No Policy He Is Not Willing to Shed in Order to Win Back Voters. but Is David Cameron's Proclaimed Shift to the Centre Ground Genuine? Martin Bright and John Kampfner Put the Conservative Leader to the Test

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David Cameron is taller than one might think. So is Tony Blair. Cameron is comfortable with his carefully crafted image. So is Blair. Or at least he was. Cameron is impressively confident, unless knocked off his stride. So is ...

The comparisons between 2006 cuddly Conservatism and 1996 new Labour have been made. They annoy the Tory leader, but the truth often does. Cameron's shift to the centre ground of British politics has coincided with a series of Labour scandals that has left the government reeling. Until May's local elections, Cameron failed to get any real traction in the polls, but a recent survey gave him the first ten-point Tory lead since before John Major's election victory of 1992.

To ease him in gently, we talk about Labour's travails. He feigns a lack of interest. "It's difficult enough running one party without working out who should run the other one." He admits, "I prefer mayhem in the Labour Party to organisation, it's true", but quickly denies this influenced his decision to back Blair on schools reform, just to keep the Prime Minister there, adrift, and his party floundering. "I think what the Education Bill process shows is that, of the two major parties, the Conservative Party is united in favour of reform and the Labour Party is divided and incapable of delivering reform without our help." He gives the impression that he is keen to get stuck into Gordon Brown. "I just want to get on with the main contest. We are in the pre-game now and I'd rather we got on with it."

We suggest that someone looking at his list of records for Desert Island Discs might mistake him for a 1980s lefty: The Smiths, Bob Dylan, REM. The only artist missing who would make the list complete is Billy Bragg. As it happens, he reveals that Bragg's "A New England" nearly made the list (although he prefers the Kirsty MacColl version). "It was difficult, but you're only allowed eight records: not inappropriate for a desert island disc, don't you think?" Perhaps, but whether the best-known hit of a socialist singer-songwriter is an appropriate choice for a future Tory PM is another matter. "This idea that you can't like the music of people who don't agree with you politically would kind of limit your musical choices a bit."

Has he ever been tempted by socialism itself? "Certainly not," he harrumphs, with the first real sign of old Tory bluster. "When I grew up in the 1980s, there was a big gulf between left and right. You were either for CND or Nato, privatisation or state ownership of industry, cutting taxes and setting people free or high rates of marginal tax, for the trade unions or for trade union reform. It seemed to me we made a choice on those sorts of grounds."


So where is the clear divide now, when Blair could easily lead a Conservative Party defined in those terms? Cameron suggests serious differences on regional assemblies ("profoundly un-Conservative"), passing further powers to Brussels ("Blair's inclination is all in that direction") and tax and public spending, where Blair has failed to do the "sensible centre-right thing" of using the proceeds of growth to reduce tax as well as increase spending in the public services.

Stripped of the rhetoric, that does not seem to add up to much of a gulf in world-views. Cameron insists that the distinction is fundamental: "The Conservative Party is about trusting people, and the Labour Party, or the sort of Brownite Labour Party, is about state responsibility and about not trusting people."

He is most comfortable with generalities such as these. The approach has so far served him well. But the contradictions in Cameron's position are not hard to find. He is an avowed admirer of Blair and yet, when pressed on Labour's legacy, he mentions Bank of England independence and increased investment in public services, both of which are usually viewed as Brown contributions. Cameron insists: "As far as I'm concerned, they've been doing a job share all along. …