How could the Tories get themselves into such a mess over the National Insurance rates, commentators have asked in amazement at George Osborne's rushed announcement on Monday. The answer is simple. The Tories, and the Government to some extent, have been caught out by the recent upsurge in economic figures and the greater mood of optimism among the public.
Up until a few months ago, the policy of the opposition was based on the view that things had never been worse and weren't likely to get that much better. Ministers might accuse them of kicking the economy when it was down, but the Tory frontbench was able to claim that desperate times needed desperate remedies. Austerity was the order of the day.
All this could return if you got some bad economic figures again in the run-up to the election, of course. But for the moment the atmosphere has undoubtedly been changed by a run of better figures suggesting that the recovery is under way. Cheer is back on the menu and, more to the political purpose, pain seems less necessary. Who wants to vote for higher taxes or poorer services when the future looks so much rosier?
Rosier may prove somewhat over-optimistic. But the change in mood has led to an almost obscene competition between the two parties – with the Lib Dems attempting to maintain some sobriety in between – over who threatens the voter least. Hence the absolute refusal of ministers or their opposite numbers on the Tory frontbench to detail anything of their projected cuts in public expenditure (someone is bound to yelp).
Hence the Chancellor's decision to phase in the rise in fuel duty over a year and to postpone measures such as the increase in National Insurance payments until after the election, under the guise of not doing anything to endanger the recovery.
And hence the Tory's sudden promise to stop the rise in NI rates on the grounds of helping unemployment, with only the wooliest explanation of how the Tories would pay for it. Whatever academics may say about the public wanting the straight story from the politicians, the politicians themselves view the public as being entirely selfish in their view of tax and spend.
They have their reasons. The better the economy, the less the public wants change. Even Mrs Thatcher found the polls moving against her in 1979 when she was challenging the Callaghan administration as the economy recovered. And the tighter the race, the less open the discussion of policy alternatives. The name of the game becomes tripping up your opponents, not opening yourself up to attack on detailed policy proposals – as we saw from the television debate between the would-be Chancellors on Monday night.
That is not just a pity, it is a betrayal of the electorate. For if ever there was a time when the full options should be discussed, it is in this election. The country isn't out of recession, not by a long chalk. All the parties now talk of cuts. But none is really prepared to lay on the line just how serious is the situation – that on any of their programmes, the debt will not only remain high but go on rising for the next three or four years.
Our way of meeting recession is by replicating all the same factors which got us into the problems in the first place – low interest rates, higher house prices, boosted consumption, increased debt, and of course, booming bank profits and spiralling bonuses. How we get out of this is just put off until another year, well beyond the election.
It may be that this is justifiable in terms of keeping the recovery fed and watered. But the country, and its voters, should be told the consequences, which is that our future will be in the hands of lenders from abroad and that we will be saddling our children with a burden of debt that will depress their standard of living for a decade or more, unless we simply try to inflate our way out of our problems as we did in the past.
It's no good pretending that the recession was a sort of blip on the trend curve, to which we can now resume with ne'er a backward glance. Put bluntly, the financial crisis and the consequent recession has left us a country of limited resources in a world of rising global competition, in which we can't any longer keep up the assumptions of a front-rank power.
With the prospect of office coming ever closer, politicians from the main parties don't wish to stir the deeper waters. Even the Lib Dems, whilst approaching the brink of real change, draw back with the thought that as members of a possible minority government they must look responsible if not conventional. But there is a crying need for a genuine radicalism to be voiced in this election other than the anti-immigration and anti-European calls of the BNP and Ukip – a radicalism which says, no, we shouldn't be in Afghanistan, that the path to the future of defence lies not in more boots on the ground, which says actually our future is in Europe and that we should be prepared to sink part of our sovereignty in a common cause.
The debate among all parties at the moment takes place on the assumption that the soldiery is the one thing we shouldn't cut, just the hardware and possibly Trident. Why not? From the point of view of the security of the British public, boots on foreign grounds may be the last thing we should be sustaining.
So too with policy on Europe. Protecting our sovereignty is chanted as a mantra, but on most issues – from climate change to trade negotiations, aid and much of foreign policy – we are only effective as part of a group. What value sovereignty when you haven't the muscle to exercise it?
Even on the issue of financial reform there's a case for operating under community rather than national rules. To date the discussion has taken place entirely as if it were a matter of controlling the banks and preferably punishing them. But that is only half the problem. If you want to keep London as a world financial centre – as we should for all the facile appeals to a different economy based on manufacturing again as if this could be achieved by a flick of the finger and few small investment schemes – then what is needed is not concentration on the banks but a far more thorough-going reform of the financial markets as a whole, the re-assertion of the power of the shareholders over management, the transparency of the system and a new look at the role of auditors. We could do this on our own and make London the place to operate in because it was the best, not most loosely-run.
If you take the area of law, there is a crying need for a commission to look at the whole body of law, how we sentence, how we handle the young, how we protect rights and how we determine custodial sentences.
The same could be said of education, where someone surely needs to stand up and condemn the whole move to academies for what it is, simply a cheap way of avoiding getting to grips with the standards of state education, its over-examination and its under-achievement.
The parties talk of constitutional reform, but each wants to take the bit that suits them or gives a sop to reform – alternative voting, an elected second chamber, set terms or whatever. None truly embraces it as a whole way of refreshing our system of governance, including the civil service.
"Which of you can guarantee that I can have a place at university and be able to buy a house," asked one of the audience of the three Chancellors in Monday's debate. There was lot of waffle from the candidates, saying of course they couldn't promise but they were proposing various measures that should make it far easier.
It was the wrong answer. What one of three should have said was a straight "No. Nobody can guarantee or even have confidence in either. Those days are over."