Cameron coasts into leadership

IN the timeline leading up to David Cameron's crushing victory in the Conservative leadership campaign, a private meeting on October 9 between colleagues in an Essex village turned out to be pivotal.

Political Editor GRAHAM DINES charts David Cameron's rise to the top of the Tory tree

IN the timeline leading up to David Cameron's crushing victory in the Conservative leadership campaign, a private meeting on October 9 between colleagues in an Essex village turned out to be pivotal.

Over coffee with their wives in the West Mersea home of Colchester councillor Kevin Bentley, Essex North MP Bernard Jenkin was persuaded to endorse the young pretender to the Tory throne.

Mr Bentley, who twice contested Colchester for the Tories, had been a supporter of Cameron from the off last May, recognising that the party had to appeal to younger voters if it was to have any chance of winning power again.

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He and Mr Jenkin had just returned from the Tory Party conference in Blackpool, where Mr Cameron had galvanised delegates with a bravado speech which propelled him to the position of favourite to take over from Michael Howard.

Yet despite the clamour of support for Cameron, Mr Jenkin - once the loyal lieutenant of former leader Iain Duncan Smith - walked around the Blackpool conference venue maintaining he had yet to make up his mind.

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But 96 hours after leaving Lancashire, and shortly after the West Mersea gathering, Mr Jenkin publicly declared his backing. He had been persuaded that the future of the Tory Party lay with the reform and modernising agenda being pedalled by David Cameron and his backers.

Among the party activists and volunteers whose votes were to decide the contest, Mr Jenkin's influence in enormous. As nominations closed for the leadership contest, his decision to back Mr Cameron rather than the right winger Dr Liam Fox heralded a stampede among rank and file Tories in Essex.

If Mr Jenkin felt able to climb on board the Cameron express, then hundreds of Conservatives in the county saw no reason not to take a gamble and back someone who had only been in the House of Commons for less than 4½ years.

Essex has one of the highest concentrations of Tory members in Britain. As the names of many of the county's MPs, councillors and party officials were added to the ever growing list of supporters on David Cameron's web site, it became clear that the Witney MP was appealing to all shades of opinion in the party, and especially those on the centre right.

When Dr Fox and Kenneth Clarke were eliminated from the contest, Mr Cameron went head-to-head with the Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, who had gone to the conference as clear favourite but who left with his campaign badly dented by a weak and lacklustre speech.

It was generally perceived that Davis had blown his chance, but even though he made up some of the lost ground in the nationwide hustings and media appearances, Davis could not overcome the handicap of his bombed Blackpool speech.

His campaign team didn't help, making some enormous errors of judgement.

It all but ignored the regional media whereas Cameron's enthusiastic band of Press officers and advisers, who knew that party members relied heavily on information from local newspapers, assiduously courted journalists throughout Britain.

Inexplicably, Davis shunned the thousands of Tory members in mid and north Essex while Cameron - under the auspices of Bernard Jenkin - held a rally at Brentwood. Both men had private meetings with constituency members in Suffolk - Davis at Newmarket and Cameron at Woodbridge - but again Cameron won the media prize, being photographed joking and laughing with Suffolk Central & Ipswich North MP Sir Michael Lord, Lady Lord, and Ipswich borough council leader Liz Harsant.

THE start of Cameron's journey to the top of the Tory tree can be traced back 12 years to his appointment as special adviser to the then Home Secretary Michael Howard. Cameron had impressed Prime Minister John Major when he became a member of his brief team but his year on Howard's staff cemented the Home Secretary's belief that here was a potential future leader.

During Howard's 18 month spell as Tory leader in the run-up to the last election, Cameron - now the MP for Witney - was one of his closest advisers.

When Howard announced he intended to stand down following the Conservatives' third election defeat, it is widely assumed that he had Cameron in mind as his successor.

Last summer, the Conservative Party went through a very public bout of soul searching on how it should reform itself. Rather than producing negative headlines, it was widely perceived by influential commentators that the Tories were at long last beginning to realise that they had to change to form an effective challenge to Labour, which itself would shortly be changing leader.

As would-be candidates for the leadership spoke at influential policy forums and at meetings of Tory members, it was clear that David Cameron was setting the agenda which all the others were falling over themselves to emulate.

But in the early months of this protracted contest, it was very difficult to find anyone who would bet against David Davis becoming leader. His supporters pointed out that he had nobly ruled himself out of the previous contest in 2003 when Iain Duncan Smith was axed by MPs, standing aside so that Michael Howard would win unopposed and thus unite the party.

In return for this sacrifice, his backers insisted he now deserved his chance. Many MPs flocked to his banner, but all the while, the Cameron team was working behind the scenes in garnering support among the opinion formers in the national and regional media.

Davis went to Blackpool, buoyed by the belief of his advisers that the conference would be like a coronation. But he was totally out manoeuvred by the Cameron media team and Cameron's speech which was a tour de force.

Now that he has been elected leader, Cameron has much to do. He has to overcome the charge that he has won through style rather than substance. He has to flesh out his polices.

One bookmaker has laid odds that Cameron will take the Conservatives back to power at the next election. That's taking it too far - the electoral arithmetic is daunting.

But one thing is certain - Labour which has had it easy during the past 8 years of weak Tory opposition, now has a fight on its hands. And that can only be a good thing.

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