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Cameron could be party's best asset at next election

AS David Cameron engages in pen-to-pen combat at the EU summit in Brussels he can at least comfort himself that it could be worse.

He could be in Paris. It was while at a European security summit there in 1990 that Margaret Thatcher was badly wounded in the first leadership ballot. Having promised to fight on, she capitulated soon after.

Following the vote on gay marriage in the Commons this week, some Conservative MPs are doubtless wishing a Paris moment on their Prime Minister. The vote split the party, 136 against and 127 for, and the clamour against Mr Cameron, from the constituencies to the Commons, is growing. Accused of being out of touch with the grassroots, ineffectual on the economy, not being tough enough on Europe, he is being cast as an electoral liability. There is talk of more plots.

Crazy question, but are the Tories mad? Far from being a hindrance to the party's chances in 2015, the Prime Minister could be the Conservatives' best asset. Instead of handing him the "Calamity" label once applied to Nick Clegg (by Chris Huhne's leadership campaign, as it happens; wonder what became of him?), they should regard Mr Cameron as entering what could be his Camelot phase, when fates and performance combine to somehow magically charm even non-Conservatives into grudgingly coming to the conclusion that he is a decent enough sort.

The Prime Minister, as his opponents reminded him loudly and often, did not have to take up the cause of gay marriage. It was a certainty he would split his party and displease some Conservative voters. One poll put the number who would not vote Tory again as a result of the gay marriage result at 20%. That is a pretty strong disincentive when you are going into the next election having just served a term in a heavily criticised Coalition.

What of those other polls, however, the ones that show a majority of UK citizens in favour of same-sex marriage? The Prime Minister was never going to convince the opponents on his own side. But in backing the idea, he had a rare chance to plant a flag in what has traditionally been Labour and Liberal Democrat territory. Think they have a monopoly on progressive politics? Think again. Think the Conservatives are still the nasty party? Let us introduce you to their socially liberal leader.

Far from slinking away after the split, Mr Cameron sounded chipper at PMQs on Wednesday, declaring himself to be "a marriage man". As he told MPs: "Two gay people who love each other will be able to get married and that is an important advance." As declarations go, it did not quite have the majesty of Barack Obama's inauguration speech ("Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law"), but it will do. Mr Cameron on the same page as Mr Obama. In the workaday world of British politics, it is not often a Prime Minister has the chance to make history, but Mr Cameron has. How Ed Miliband must feel out in the cold.

Besides capturing some ground on same-sex marriage, Mr Cameron's rolling of his tanks on to the EU's lawn is keeping the sceptics in his party quiet. For now, anyway. It could be this EU budget summit will be like the last one, and the British Prime Minister will fail to secure substantial cuts. Or, if cuts come, they will fall in the wrong places (transport, for example, rather than ditching the parliament's Strasbourg sessions). Whatever he does will not pass muster with some in his party, but to the wider electorate he is someone who has at least taken the initiative.

When it comes to Scotland and the independence debate, Mr Cameron is doing better than expected – largely, it must be said, by staying out of matters as much as possible. It is not a brave or especially laudable tactic, but it is effective. By saying he will not "pre-negotiate Scotland's exit from the United Kingdom" he makes it necessary for the SNP to show more of its hand. As seen this week, when it was claimed that building an independent state would take less time than constructing the Forth Replacement Crossing, that will open the party to further criticism that it is not on speaking terms with reality. Mr Cameron does not have to put the ball in the SNP's net if they are doing it themselves (with a little "help" from Jose Manuel Barroso, the EU Commission president, on the wing).

When he is not wisely steering clear, the Prime Minister is showing he is adept at stepping up to the despatch box. Whether presenting the report on the Hillsborough disaster, or the findings of an inquiry into the appalling standards of care at Stafford Hospital, he is able to find the right tone for the moment. One might disagree profoundly with his politics in general, but at these particularly sensitive times he sounds like a human being – a father, a husband, a member of the human race. Easy for an experienced politician you might think, especially one who used to earn a crust in public relations, and a stroll in St James's park for someone whose background and education have given him a smooth finish. But he is far better than his predecessors, and more impressive than Messrs Miliband, Balls, Murphy and Alexander, who continue to have all the gravitas of a boy band.

For all these reasons, the Prime Minister could be forgiven for not having too many troubled dreams about the by-election in Eastleigh, Hampshire. Chris Huhne, boy racer of that parish, now heading somewhere else, kept the seat in 2010 for the Liberal Democrats with a majority of 3864 over the Conservatives. With Nigel Farage of Ukip not standing, the Tories could simply plaster the place with photos of Huhne and go on holiday, knowing the voters will make their feelings plain.

But as voters inside and outside Eastleigh know, it was the Tories who opened the door to having the Liberal Democrats in government. The Tories led by David Cameron. The same Prime Minister who, together with his Chancellor, is showing himself incapable of pulling the UK out of recession. Ultimately, that is the issue on which Mr Cameron will survive or flounder. For now, watch him fly.

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