Tory Blair, meet Socialist Dave

The party conferences are over. And MPs have returned to the Commons in an unsettled atmosphere. 'Where do we go from here?' is the big question. The answers are not so easy to come by.

The party conferences are over. And MPs have returned to the Commons in an unsettled atmosphere. 'Where do we go from here?' is the big question. The answers are not so easy to come by.

The opinion polls aren't much of a guide. The ratings for the Tories dipped just before their conference, and that was generally seen to be a consequence of Tony Blair's well-received valedictory speech in Manchester. Another poll last weekend put the Conservatives six percentage points ahead of Labour, and that was interpreted as evidence that David Cameron's speeches at Bournemouth had also gone down very well with the public. But a Populus poll in yesterday's Times put the Tories on 36pc and Labour on 35pc.

Maybe the electorate is rather confused after the conferences. And if that is the case, it is not hard to fathom. Mr Cameron's main speech to the Tory representatives was markedly Blairite in both tone and content. Indeed, it can be argued that his message was more Blairite, and even more left-wing, than the prime minister's.

He made some fascinating incursions into traditional Labour territory. He praised the NHS - “one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century” - to the skies. He backed the minimum wage. He returned to his 'hug a hoodie' comment, and made no attempt to back away from it; on the contrary, he accused Mr Blair of giving up on being 'tough on the causes of crime', and said crime could be tackled only if “we tackle family breakdown, we tackle drug addiction, we mend broken lives”. He again put some distance between himself and the Bush White House. He emphasised his commitment to childcare, and seemed to offer more support from taxpayers' money. And he voiced support for civil partnerships.

In a generally tougher-sounding speech, Mr Blair spoke of the rights of the victims of crime, re-committed himself to the introduction of identity cards, said that some use of nuclear energy would be necessary, and denounced both the idea that terrorism is “our fault” and any suggestion that it would be better to be a “half-hearted” ally of the US.

Further to that he directly attacked Mr Cameron's stance on crime, foreign policy and relations with the US, immigration and ID cards, and energy policy. And in each case he seemed to do so from a position that appeared - not least to him - to be to the right of the Tory leader's.

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As I sat in the conference hall at Bournemouth listening to Mr Cameron's principal speech I wondered how much of it a typical party representative present really believed in. (Unlike some cynics, I assume that the party leader himself believes all of it, though the contrast with last year's Tory manifesto, which he wrote, is almost staggering.) Was the applause from the heart? Or did it come from a painful acceptance that this was a price that had to be paid if the party was to regain power?

One can ask the same in reference to the Conservative candidate selection process in what will be the new seat of Mid-Norfolk. Mr Cameron's messages about charisma, style and inclusiveness seem to have been thoroughly understood by the 15-person selection panel. It is composed entirely of local party members, but has nonetheless produced a shortlist of 10 made up completely of 'A-list' people favoured by the leader. Are they entirely happy with their handiwork so far? Have they all been won over by Mr Cameron's modern, metropolitan “liberal Conservatism”? Or are they operating on the maxim that this is the way it has to be?

The Populus poll was much better for Mr Cameron than the one point lead would suggest. It also indicated that there would be an eight point lead for the Tories if Labour were led by Gordon Brown (and bigger advantages if it were led by John Reid or Alan Johnson).

There was no surprise in this. For several months now polls have been saying that the Conservatives will open up a wider lead over Labour if Mr Blair is replaced by Mr Brown. And the consistency of this suggests that the chancellor could not lead his party to a fourth consecutive election victory over the Tories.

What will Labour do about this? Deny Mr Brown the leadership crown and give it instead to someone else? That is still unlikely to happen. But it could be very different if new evidence emerged that another candidate would do better.

Mr Brown seems particularly unattractive to female electors. For them, the 'substance' of his politics does not match up to the charm and balm of Mr Cameron's. Surely niceness cannot be enough? Don't rule it out.