No change, no win - Cameron

Shadow Education Secretary David Cameron, the standard bearer of the Tory modernisers, talks to EADT Political Editor Graham Dines ahead of the contest to replace Michael Howard as party leader.

Shadow Education Secretary David Cameron, the standard bearer of the Tory modernisers, talks to EADT Political Editor Graham Dines ahead of the contest to replace Michael Howard as party leader.

DAVID Cameron makes no pretence of the scale of the task facing the Conservative Party.

Whoever wins the leadership contest to succeed Michael Howard has to make the Tories relevant to millions who long ago gave up on a party which they believe was not in tune with the hopes and aspirations of a new generation of voters.

Mr Cameron has none of the "one last heave and we're home boys" mentality which some blinkered MPs and party faithful believe is all that is needed to win the next General Election.

"We need to gain more than 140 seats to win power. It won't be easy, our progress over the past eight years has been slow."

Mr Cameron knows that the path to power depends on the Conservatives reconnecting with the cities of Britain, most of which long ago ceased to have Tory MPs. That means effective solutions to deep rooted social problems.

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David Cameron is the great white hope of the modernising wing of the Conservative Party, characterised as the Notting Hill set - politicians in their 20s and 30s sitting around outside trendy wine bars and coffee shops and formulating polices on crime, health, education and regeneration.

Mr Cameron's pitch for the leadership was made easier when his friend and fellow young Turk George Osborne decided to rule himself out of the contest. He thus has the modernisers' vote to himself.

"We have lost three elections in a row, flat lining at 33%," says Mr Cameron. "Yes we made some progress in May, gaining 33 seats, but our share of the vote has not increased. And if we don't change don't change, we won't win."

He believes the Tories have to become an inclusive, all-embracing party, appealing to every section of the community and society. If it does not, the next election will be beyond them.

Mr Cameron has huge respect for Kenneth Clarke, the 65 year-old former Chancellor who surprised the party establishment by announcing at the end of the last month that he would be a candidate for leadership for the third time.

"This is a very open contest. Ken Clarke is a huge figure in the party - he only has to get out of bed to get headlines. Some of us have to work a bid harder at it.

"Age is irrelevant in this leadership contest. It's the policies that matter and I just happen to think that Ken has always been wrong on Europe."

It's a crowded field in the race to become leader. As well as Mr Clarke, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Dr Liam Fox have declared their candidatures, and it could well be that Theresa May, David Willetts and Michael Ancram will enter the first round.

Mr Cameron has still to declare officially that he will be a candidate, but his coyness is kidding no-one. He has resisted overtures from the Clarke camp to join the former Chancellor in a dream team partnership to combat the favourite David Davis.

Like Mr Davis, Cameron believes in biding his time before making the formal announcement. But with the Conservative Party conference starting in less than four weeks, he's likely to declare later this month, enabling him to sell himself to the party rank-and-file in a platform speech and a number of fringe meetings.

He spent the summer outlining his beliefs in a set of key note speeches, appealing to the Tory Party with the theme "strengthening the ties that bind us."

"I have been trying over the past few months to lay out a concrete set of ideas on what the Conservative Party should stand for.

"We must be modern, believing that our best days lie ahead of us. There is no use reliving the past, talking about how the economy was when we were last in office, or refighting European battles."

Mr Cameron added: "I am very conscious that we are picking a leader for 2009. What this party has to be is modern, believing that out best days lie a head of us.

"We have to be compassionate - I believe there has to be `we' in politics, not just `me.'"

Michael Howard's hope of changing the party's rules to remove the vote from ordinary party members and let MPs make the final decision on who should be leader appears to be in danger of being defeated at the party's convention, to be held during the Labour Party conference.

Is the protracted nature of the leadership contest having a detrimental effect on the party's standing in the country? "No matter which set of rules the party uses to choose its leader, there has to be the widest possible audience for the views of the candidates.

"I do not think it will be an issue at the next election. People will not look back four years and say: `If only the Conservative Party had chosen its leader a month earlier, things would be different.'"

He dismisses a weekend opinion poll showing that whichever leader the Tories' choose will still lose to a Gordon Brown-led Labour Party. The electorate wants major reforms of the public services and the Chancellor has been "a huge brake" on modernising education and health.

With the right policies in place, he maintains a forward looking and progressive Conservative Party can pull off victory at the next election.

"It's not an impossible task. Fortunes of political parties turn around. When I was at university, there was a line across this country from the River Seven to The Wash, below which there were no Labour MPs with the exception of London."

He believes that if Labour could turn its fortunes around, then so can the Conservatives - but not unless the party modernises.

Mr Cameron, who will be 39 on October 9, was educated at Eton and Oxford. He worked in policy departments of Conservative Central Office, before being elected MP for Witney in Oxfordshire in 2001.

Married with two children, he says: "I have a very rich life outside of politics. I play tennis, cook, garden, grow vegetables, and like walking, riding, and cycling.

"I have a wonderful family, a lovely wife, we travel a lot, and have many friends who have nothing to do with politics.

"I can switch off at weekends. I read a lot, although that's not easy with two young children, and enjoy biographies and political history."

The last time the Tory Party turned to youth to lead them, it was a disaster. MPs chose William Hague in 1997, the candidate pushed into the race to stop Kenneth Clarke becoming leader.

Hague led the Tories to another mauling, but there are now many in the party who assert it's time to skip a generation and plump for Cameron.

Although he says age doesn't matter, in reality it does. If Mr Clarke became leader and lost in 2009 at the age of 69, he would almost certainly have to stand down.

Many think David Davis, who'll be 60 at the next election, would also be forced out through age. The same goes for Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Ancram.

Dr Liam Fox and Theresa May are younger, but the great leap of faith for the Tory Party would be to choose Cameron and stick with him if he loses the next election.

Yes, the Tory Party is looking for a winner. But if the election is lost, it does not want to go through the agonies and derision of selecting its sixth leader in 12 years.

And that could be the deciding factor when it comes to choosing the next leader of the Conservative Party.

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