Julian Knight: Come on, Mr Cameron, let's have some answers

As the Tory leader glides towards No 10, pensions are in crisis and the banks up to their old tricks. So, we say, forget PR, we want the truth, however harsh
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The Independent Online

Unless there is the political comeback to end them all, Labour is heading out of office and David Cameron's Conservatives in. Previous political seismic shifts have been preceded by the opposition coming up with a clear ideology.

In 1979, Thatcher promised to take on the unions. Blair in 1997 had his Third Way; build a better society without warring with the free market. What does the Tory government in waiting offer us?

The PR has been overhauled and Cameron looks electable in a way that Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard did not. But never has a party been enjoying such an easy ride into Downing Street. Labour has imploded before our eyes – horrible and compulsive viewing – but this means I don't know what the Tories stand for. Do you? In the midst of a recession, with a deepening pensions crisis, tax rises inevitable and the country gasping under a pile of ill-advised personal debt, I have some questions and observations for Mr Cameron.

What are you going to do about the state pension age?

It's going to go up. We all know that, but it looks as if it needs to rise quicker and by much more than Labour plans. Lord Turner says, if he were penning his seminal report on pensions today rather than in 2005, that he would recommend a rise to 70 in double-quick time. He'd also like to see means-tested benefits such as pension credit curbed, as it means that people with small pensions lose out. We need to reward savers from lower income groups disproportionately and have a society that is geared towards working longer, and where ageist hiring policies aren't just frowned upon but are strictly illegal.

Are you ready for a public-sector pension fight?

No government can be serious about sorting out the country's finances without tackling this head on. Labour has presided over the creation of a two-tier society, with good provision for public-sector workers – guaranteed by the taxpayer – and anaemic pensions for the rest of us. It will mean strikes and shocking headlines but there can no longer be a blank cheque for public-sector pensions.

What will you do about rip-off banks?

This one will probably spark the biggest soul searching for Cameron's Tories. Never have we needed a firmer hand on the banks, not only in terms of stopping them lending irresponsibly in the future, but also in controlling their impulse to close gaping holes in their balance sheets by piling charges on consumers. The Conservatives promise a new regulatory regime, and the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, has made noises about curbing the excesses of private equity, but the problem is that the Tories have always been the party of the banks. They have been funded by them and the party's bigwigs have enjoyed an all-too-cosy relationship with the City. What's more, a successful career in the City is still a fast-track route to party candidacy. Being anti-bank would be a disaster for the economy but banks need to be made to understand that they can't run riot and that they have to work within the boundaries of good practice, and take responsibility. That requires legislation, not just the much vaunted "eyebrow" of the Governor of the Bank of England.

Are you really going ahead with an inheritance tax cut?

When, in late 2007, the Tories announced their plan to exempt estates worth less than £1m from IHT they were applauded for wrong-footing the Government and panicking Gordon Brown into calling off an election that he probably would have won. But to persist with a policy that will cost so much at a time when we are potentially only a credit-rating agency downgrade away from fiscal calamity is a nonsense. Be honest and say, "we'd like to do it but it's not a priority", as public finances are such a mess.

With less than a year to go before the election, we need to know what the Tories will do about vital personal finance issues and what their attitude will be to the banks. My advice to Cameron would be to always keep the idea of balancing the UK's books at the centre of what they are doing, and to sacrifice some sacred cows – and I don't mean chinless toffs caught claiming for moat cleaning – the idea, say, that deregulation is always best and the City should be left unfettered. After years of Brown's delusional economic management and the opiate of huge borrowing people are ready for the truth, however harsh.

That horse has bolted

Just a quick word on the Government's Consumer White Paper. It's all very well curbing both credit-card cheques and the raising of customers' spending limits without permission, but this is all a decade too late. Talk about closing the stable door. What did the Government do in the past 12 years? Diddly squat. Numerous Treasury Select Committee meetings have railed against lenders and talked about transparency, but MPs knew, ultimately, that only the Government could pull the levers. The tactics of the lenders was as blatant, usurious and as stupid as you can get.

I agree with the principle that you should allow people choice and that they should be responsible for themselves, but why egg them on to get further into debt? As the credit crunch shows, your neighbours indebtedness doesn't affect just them, it pulls the rug from under the economy and damages society. But New Labour did not want to be accused of disrupting the workings of the free market. It is only in its dog days, thrashing around for any populist policy, that the Government plans to do something. It's all such a shame.

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