Bruce Anderson: Cameron must do more to get his message across, even as the Government flounders

The Tories have time to develop their argument, and they should not be afraid of serious debate
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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown would be foolish to believe that he is over the worst. On both the tax discs and Northern Rock, there are more embarrassments to come and no hope of closure this side of Christmas. The discs may now be in the hands of Eastern European mafiosi, who are skilled in identity theft. So those who have not yet changed their bank details ought to hurry.

As for Northern Rock, the Government is desperate to find a quick solution, and one which enables Alistair Darling to claim that the Treasury's £24bn – and rising – is safe. In that rush to escape further humiliation, Mr Darling seems to have lost interest in the fate of the shareholders. But this lot of shareholders will not go as quietly as the Railtrack ones did.

They have formidable advocates. One organisation is headed by Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, who used to be Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in the days when that job was held by a proper policeman, not a third-rate politician. John Stevens is reinforced by Jon Wood and RAB Capital, both major shareholders. Mr Wood, one of the most interesting City figures of recent years, is said to take elocution lessons so that he continues to sound as if he were selling apples and pears in Hoxton market. Over the years, he has made a lot of money and a number of enemies. But no-one would dispute that he knows the difference between a bag of rotten fruit and a going concern. In his view, Northern Rock could still be a going concern, which would earn enough money to serve its debt and offer shareholders the hope of a gradual recovery.

The Government seems to prefer the counsel of John "Studs'' Studzinski of Blackstone, another formidable figure. No one doubts his ability. But there is a fear that if the solution is left to merchant bankers with no stake in the Rock, the outcome could be a fee frenzy while the assets are sold at distressed prices, the shareholders are left with wallpaper – and the Government with an enormous loss. Even if Alistair Darling were not in a panic, would anyone trust him to find the right answer?

As well as competence, the Government has run out of luck. Ministers blunder about as if they were playing blind-man's-bluff in a garden full of rakes. There is a continuous succession of yelps as yet another one stands on the prongs and the handle biffs him on the nose.

All this leads to an obvious question. Why are the Tories not doing better? Their lead is widening and their ratings are creeping into the 40s, but the lead ought to be soaring: the ratings bounding. This is not happening, for one simple reason. Gordon Brown had identified a source of Tory vulnerability.

Although it seems laughable now, Mr Brown set out to portray himself as competent and experienced. He also projected himself as a strong man in a dangerous world. The electorate were invited to contrast all that with David Cameron's Etonian callowness. That is not the contrast which they see every Wednesday at PM's Questions, but even if Mr Brown now spends his time tripping over his own feet when he is not stamping on his ministers' toes, Mr Cameron has a problem.

He is good in the Commons and at making the news with individual initiatives. Yet there is still a hole in the centre. The voters do not know enough about his beliefs and his philosophy of government. It will not be enough for Mr Cameron to assert that his administration will be much more competent than Gordon Brown's. Unless he gives disillusioned voters grounds to believe in him, they might just wish a plague on both your parties.

It should not be hard for David Cameron to deal with this, for he has answers. Whereas Gordon Brown has given control-freakery a bad name, David Cameron believes that government must do less and do it better. He wants to hand power back to parents and teachers, patients and doctors: to local authorities and local police forces. In Mr Cameron's view, there is a clear lesson from the experience of the past 10 years. If the Government tries to do everything, it succeeds in nothing.

This all needs to be expounded, with an acknowledgement that it will not be as easy as it sounds. Mr Cameron is advocating a cultural change in the governing of Britain. Up to now, and even before Labour carried the process to an absurd excess, the Civil Service always insisted that the expenditure of public money requires regulation and control. The Civil Service has also believed in uniformity of provision. From Hadrian's Wall to the Helford Estuary, everyone should enjoy the same entitlements.

Under Mr Cameron's plans, that could not continue. Localisation must mean diversity. It must also involve the possibility of failure. Localisation cannot work unless those who are given responsibility are entitled to try new approaches and take risks. Not all those risks will come off. It ought to be easy for the Tories to argue that the occasional failure at local level is vastly preferable to the huge and systemic waste and failure which occurs throughout central government. But that case has to be made.

Two years ago, the Tories' intellectual boldness was inhibited by the fear that whenever they proposed reforms, they would be accused of planning cuts. "Eliminate waste'', Labour spokesmen would declaim scornfully: "To the Tories, all the public services that the people rely on are just so much waste.'' Thanks to David Cameron, that electoral liability has been largely eliminated. As he would be telling the truth, he should have no difficulty in persuading voters of his commitment to high-quality public services. This should encourage them to trust his proposals for change.

Early on in Mr Cameron's leadership, he had a meeting with M. Sarkozy, in which the future French President told him how much he admired the British economic reforms of the 1980s. In response, David Cameron expressed his ambition. He hoped that in the 2030s, a European leader would come to London to tell a Tory leader how much he admired the public service reforms of the 2010s.

The Tories have time to develop their argument and they should not be afraid of serious debate. There is a widespread belief that, in recent years, politics has been dumbed down. At the moment, David Cameron's speeches command attention. He should also be prepared to make his audiences do some thinking.

Since the war, every government that lost an election had already lost power while it was still in office. Its defeat at the ballot box merely ratified what had already occurred. It now looks as if the same could be happening to Gordon Brown, who faces another threat. Politicians can survive hatred. They cannot survive contempt. Once voters have stopped listening and started laughing, a Government is dead. Last week, the Brown government began to die. But there are Liberals, Ukip, abstentions. David Cameron cannot rely on a moribund opponent to bring him to power.