Thursday, 3 December 2009

Show Us The Vision, Dave

Back in the second half of 2007, when Gordon Brown was newly installed in Number 10 and he was enjoying a honeymoon period with the British people, the opposite was true for David Cameron. That summer was a nightmare for the Conservative leader as he lagged behind in the polls and there was talk of an early snap election which Labour were expected to win. There was much muttering about Cameron's leadership, about the lack of policies, about him being all about image and PR without very much substance.

Cameron, along with George Osborne came out fighting. They came out with some good ideas on tax and Cameron gave an impressive speech to the Conservative conference. They were aided by Brown's ill considered trip to Afghanistan and his dithering over calling an election, dithering that was only made worse when he denied what we all knew to be true. They honeymoon was over, the Labour lead disappeared and ever since they have been behind and struggling to stay in sight.

Brown's excuse for the non election that autumn was that he needed time to set out his vision to the British people. Two years on we are still waiting. Brown's vision appears to be a determination to cling to power and the willingness to do more or less anything in order to stay there.

Yet have we had anything more from the Tories? What is the Cameron vision? We know about their impressive plans for schools. That is a real policy with real detail. But what of other areas? There is vague talk of localism - elected mayors, elected sheriffs to control police and so on. But it still doesn't amount to a vision.

This, I would suggest, is behind the Tories' failure to 'seal the deal'. This is why, after a few weeks of comparative political quiet and no governmental cock ups, that opinion poll lead is withering and people are talking about hung Parliaments.

It has long been conventional wisdom that oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them. David Cameron's Conservatives seem determined to prove this. They refuse to do or say anything bold or visionary for fear that it will scare people off and that Brown will target it remorselessly as he has inheritance tax.

But such fears are wrong. Over the summer Brown tried another of his famous dividing lines over public spending, insisting that he would keep spending and Cameron would cut. For once Cameron stood up to him and won the argument. He won because Brown's arguments are thin and meretricious and amount to nothing. They are all that Labour has left. Yet still Cameron won't take him on.

In so many areas people are desperate to hear new ideas, new approaches, a vision of the future to make them optimistic and to feel confident about the Tories. You don't get that thirst for change when an opposition party is taking the path of least resistance.

On tax Cameron should be saying yes we will cut tax because that is the way to strengthen our economy and create more jobs. We would start by scrapping increases in national insurance, cutting corporation tax and by cutting tax completely for the low paid. He should give a cast iron guarantee that bankers bonuses for those banks in receipt of taxpayers money will be curtailed or scrapped until we have been paid back.

On schools the Conservatives have good and impressive plans and so they should talk about them constantly and proudly. Labour promised us education, education, education but all we got was targets, bureaucracy, meddling and dumbed down exams.

On defence the government has tried to fight two wars, one which has lasted for 8 years now, on a peacetime budget. It has undoubtedly cost lives and new priorities should be urgently set to ensure we have the forces and capabilities for the modern era.

And why are the Conservatives so terrified of talking about the NHS? Labour have thrown huge resources at the health service and yet we are still getting reports of filthy wards, delays and bad practice. Money has not been the solution. A 50 year old service designed for different times needs reform. It could still be guaranteed as being free at the point of service. That principle should not preclude taking an axe to the layers of bureaucracy which has made the service sclerotic and inefficient. The NHS should be turned purely into an insurance fund with all existing hospitals and other providers made into independent trusts or mutuals competing for patients.

And on Europe Cameron missed his chance. Look at the farce surrounding the appointment of the new EU president and Baroness Ashton. That was an open goal and yet Cameron didn't even take a shot because he fears talking about it. When the British people were betrayed over Europe it was a golden opportunity to talk about this broken and corrupt institution of which we are a reluctant part. He should have been arguing for change and greater ambition, of a need for involving the people rather than actively trying to exclude them. It is his shabby retreat on Europe that has done a great deal of damage. Instead of a man of principle he now looks like another politician who will say anything to be elected and then ignore the will of the people once in power.

These are all themes Cameron could and should have been talking about these last two years instead of trying not to scare people. Barack Obama was elected last year on a theme of change and renewal and that is what we need in this country. The muttering about Cameron in 2007 was because he looked lacklustre and like someone who was about to lead his party to another defeat. Now, after two years of this hopeless, hapless and serially dishonest Prime Minister he is somehow contriving to seize something like defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Tories should be out of sight at this point. That they are not is down to Cameron's excessive caution and refusal to be bold and to set out an optimistic vision for Britain's future. There is still time for him to show some energy and resolve, to take Brown on and grind him into the dirt. Brown has given him plenty of opportunity. Can Cameron show the mettle required to seize the day and start building a better future?

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