David Cameron yesterday boiled down his pitch for power to a simple choice between "more big government" by Labour or "the big society" with the Conservatives. Launching his party's manifesto, he set out a vision of a Britain in which a Tory administration would allow people to control their everyday lives free of state interference.
Mr Cameron said he was issuing the "biggest call to arms our country has seen in a generation" as he urged the nation to help open up "government and public services and our whole political system".
Amid fears that recent Tory warnings of austere times ahead have alienated voters, the party sought to paint an optimistic, upbeat picture of Britain's prospects, while failing to spell out in detail where the spending axe might fall.
Although the party has maintained a consistent lead over Labour in the polls, it has failed to achieve the groundswell of support that would guarantee a majority for Mr Cameron on 6 May. The Tories' strategists hope that the launch – combined with Mr Cameron's appearance in tomorrow's first televised leadership debate with Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg – will give the party new momentum.
The Conservative high command headed to the disused shell of Battersea power station in south London for the manifesto announcement. Mr Cameron explained the symbolism of the venue: "It's a building in need of regeneration, in a country in need of regeneration."
Flanked by his shadow Cabinet and young party activists, he insisted the Tories were back in tune with contemporary Britain: "This is a modern, progressive Conservative manifesto. It is confirmation this party has changed, that we have returned to the centre-ground of British politics – and that is where we will stay." The Tories backed up the publication of their manifesto by relaying its message – "An invitation to join the government of Britain" – to 500,000 voters by email, Facebook and Twitter.
The key points include:
Cutting Britain's debts
An emergency Budget would be held within 50 days of the election to set out a "credible plan for eliminating the bulk of the structural current budget deficit" over a Parliament.
The manifesto promises an early start, with £6bn of savings in the current financial year and a one-year public-sector pay freeze in 2011 for all but the lowest-paid. The party promises to increase health budgets in real terms and to raise overseas aid spending. There would, however, be cuts to "wasteful spending in many other departmental budgets". It gave no detail of what that would mean: Mr Cameron yesterday insisted it was impossible for an Opposition to do so without seeing the books.
The party pledges to reverse the planned increase in national insurance contributions – the so-called "jobs tax" which their manifesto claims would "kill off the recovery" – for most working people and almost all employers. The move would be paid for by cuts in Whitehall waste. The document confirmed plans to give lower and middle-income married couples a tax break of up to £150 a year, but made no promises on income tax or any mention of value-added tax (VAT). The Institute for Fiscal Studies said the absence of a reference to income-tax rates or VAT "leaves the door open to many other tax increases".
Power to the people
Residents would win the right to instigate referendums if 5 per cent of local people backed the move. The power could, for example, be used to block unpopular transport or planning schemes, or to veto council tax rises. The Tories say they want to see more elected mayors and police commanders. Communities would be allowed to take over pubs and post offices threatened with closure. Public-sector workers would be encouraged to form "co-ops" to run services like nursing teams.
Trumpeted as the most sweeping shake-up of the welfare state since its creation, a Cameron government would create a single "Work Programme" for all unemployed people. Those who refused an offer of work would lose their benefits. The claims of the 2.6 million recipients of incapacity benefit would be reassessed to judge their fitness to work.
Patients are promised "real choice" by entitling them to choose any healthcare provider – including private clinics – within NHS prices, while people would be guaranteed access to a local GP 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Top-down Government targets, such as waiting times for treatment, would be scrapped in a blitz on the "endless layers of bureaucracy and management".
Schools would undergo their biggest reform for a generation, with the establishment of state-funded "free schools" run by parents, teachers' charities, trusts and voluntary groups. The party says the new schools would have smaller class sizes and higher standards. The qualifications required for many new entrants to teaching would be raised, the national curriculum made "more challenging" and the use of phonics to teach reading promoted in an effort to eliminate illiteracy.
An army of 5,000 community organisers would be appointed to stimulate work in rebuilding neighbourhoods. They would be backed by the launch this summer of the National Citizen Service offering 16-year-olds the chance to work in their communities and mix with youngsters from other backgrounds.
The party confirmed its commitment to the legally-binding cuts in CO2 emissions of 80 per cent by 2050, with 10 per cent cuts in its first year.
It promised to create a Green Investment Bank to raise money to fund new green technology companies and to provide a "green deal" providing loans of up to £6,500 for people to install energy efficiency measures in their homes.
The party asserts that immigration is too high, but may disappoint right-wingers by only promising to "take steps" to reduce net inward migration from hundreds of thousands a year to tens of thousands. Annual caps on non-EU migration would be imposed, favouring those who "bring the most value" to the economy.
Cleaning up politics
A "deep clean of the political system" in the wake of the expenses scandal would give voters the power to "recall" MPs guilty of corruption by forcing them to face a parliamentary election. The Tories claim they can save £100m a year by cutting Westminster's "perks and bureaucracy", notably by cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 585 in a review of parliamentary boundaries.
How it compared: Past agendas
1997: You can only be sure with the Conservatives
The centrepiece of John Major's manifesto – written by Danny Finklestein (now a journalist) and David Willetts (now shadow Universities Secretary) – was tax relief for married couples, just as David Cameron has made tax breaks for married couples a key part of his appeal. Major estimated that allowing married couples to transfer tax relief would help almost 2 million families and add up to £17.50 to their weekly income. Major also promised to cut the basic rate of tax from 23p to 20p – the lower rate today. With Labour campaigning to "Save the NHS", Major promised to increase spending on the NHS and create "super surgeries" and practice-based cottage hospitals to offer faster and more local treatment. These are similar to Labour's plans for polyclinics and cottage hospitals today. A referendum on the euro was also promised.
Verdict 4 out of 5. Forward-looking but undone by Blair and "time for a change".
2001: Time for common sense
William Hague tried to turn the election into a referendum on the euro, campaigning on an increasingly desperate Tory manifesto pledge to "Keep the pound". It also offered local referendums before any large increase in council tax and less regulation for business (echoed by Cameron's campaign manifesto). Taxes would be lowered for businesses, families, savers, pensioners and motorists with a pledge to cut fuel duty by 6p per litre. Again, the Tories offered to restore the married couples' tax allowance and there were two more pledges which have been borrowed by Cameron: "Power for parents to change the management of failing schools" and "transfer power from central government to effective local councils".
Verdict 2 out of 5. Fine aspirations wrecked by jingoistic campaign to "Save the pound".
2005: Are you thinking what we're thinking?
The 2005 Tory manifesto was seen as another swing to the right by the Tories under their leader, Michael Howard, and David Cameron was credited with its authorship. The key pledges on the front page of the manifesto were handwritten and promised More Police, Cleaner Hospitals, Lower Taxes, School Discipline, Controlled Immigration and Accountability, which would find an echo in the Cameron manifesto of 2010. The centrepiece was a promise to save £12bn by cutting waste by freezing civil service recruitment, cutting 235,000 posts and abolishing 168 public bodies. Of this, £8bn would be used to cut Government borrowing and £4bn would be used to meet a pledge to cut taxes in the first Budget. It was based on work by Sir Peter Gershon, and Cameron's new manifesto today repeats that pledge to save £12bn from waste he identified.
Verdict 3 out of 5. The answer to the question was no. Nice try but the voters weren't ready for the message.