Britain’s Conservative Party announced overnight the victory of David Cameron in the leadership ballot to replace Michael Howard. Cameron beat his rival, shadow home secretary David Davis, by a larger-than-expected margin of about 70,000 votes, or a little over two to one.

The 39-year-old Camero, who only entered parliament in 2001, was regarded as the more progressive candidate, although his views appear to be well within the Tory mainstream. The Telegraph says he won “despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that so little is known about him.”

According to The Guardian’sRos Taylor, Conservatives feel “trusting, excited, a little terrified of the risk they have just taken,” while Philip Webster in The Times said the Conservatives “will go to bed in good heart tonight.”

Cameron looks like the Tories’ best option, taking over at a time when the Blair government is more vulnerable than ever. But he will have his work cut out to rehabilitate his party’s brand; as Liberal Democrat president Simon Hughes (quoted in The Guardian) said, “The Conservatives’ problem is not their salesman – it’s their product.”

Yesterday’s Australian reported an internal Conservative Party study that paints a gloomy picture of its organisational health. Many of its branches, says the paper, are “like the divisions of a battle-weary army, they exist on paper but not in practice.”

“As recently as the 1960s, it was one of the biggest mass political movements in the world, with three million members. Today the figure is closer to 280,000, with most members in receipt of their old-age pensions.”

That will sound familiar to students of the Australian Liberal Party, and the comparison is interesting. The Tory Party has about one member for every 160 enrolled voters, but the Liberal Party is even worse off, with a ration of about one to 205. (Back in the 1950s, it was one to 25.)

The difference is that the Liberals have just had four straight election wins, not three losses. Clearly, grassroots decay need not be an obstacle to victory.