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John Rentoul

John Rentoul: Cameron's game plan was to sit tight and say precisely nothing

David Cameron's response to the Budget was extraordinary. He sat tight and said nothing. Well, it did not look like it or sound like it. It looked and sounded like an energetic, passionate excoriation of a failed and failing government. The Leader of the Opposition was technically standing up at the time. His lips were moving; sound was emanating from him; some of his lines were so cutting that Labour MPs laughed; his posture was active. But really, he was sitting with his knees together, his hands clamped between them and he was saying nothing. He was sitting and waiting for the great big caboodle – of office, importance, action and the chance to start afresh – to fall into his lap.

His performance was eerily reminiscent of Tony Blair in his heyday, up against John Major, a broken prime minister, and Norman Lamont, a chancellor that lacked conviction. Blair and Cameron both use "prop'ly" as their favourite adjective, a meaningless way of implying that the other bloke has got it wrong and they would do it right. Cameron yesterday had a go at the Government's failure to "regulate credit prop'ly", as if that were the sole cause of the downturn and as if the Conservatives would have done better.

Telling your opponents that they are not doing it "prop'ly" is a good way of saying nothing, if your game plan is to let the other lot make a mess of things and wait for it all to fall into your lap.

So Cameron said nothing. Specifically, he said nothing about what the Conservatives would do about the 50p tax rate that will now be introduced just before the election. Everyone noticed him not saying anything about that. What they didn't notice is that he didn't say anything about a lot of other things either. (What few MPs noticed straight away about the earlier introduction of the higher 50p rate, though, is that bringing it in before the election makes it easier, not harder, for the Tories to accept, because they won't actually have to legislate for it.)

He had a number of good lines, reinforcing what people think about what has already happened. The biggest boom and bust ever. The voters will never forgive the people that have done this. And his peroration: "What on earth is the point of another 14 months of this Government of the living dead?" That line, which sounds as if Blair used it against Major in the last days of the previous Tory administration, was actually from Cameron's own back catalogue of soundbites. He had used it against Blair in May 2007, on the day before the former prime minister announced the actual date of his departure.

Cameron's response to the Budget was a brilliant exposition of the parlous state of the national finances – easy enough, considering how unprecedentedly parlous they are – but he said nothing new about what a Conservative government would do about it. The only thing that Cameron did say, which he has said many times before and about which he was just as unspecific yesterday as before, is that the Conservatives would cut spending in preference to letting borrowing rip or putting up taxes. Yes, of course, with a gap between government spending and income of £185bn this year, any government for the foreseeable future is going to have to do all three. But it does make a difference to a political party where its emphasis lies. Since the crisis broke, the Tories have wanted to control spending, while Labour wants to borrow – to quite a breathtaking extent – with a tiny figleaf of higher taxes. Half a per cent on National Insurance for everyone, and two symbolic but low-revenue-raising hits on the rich, the 50p rate and the pension contributions clawback.

Those are not so much ideological positions as rational responses to the different positions in which the parties find themselves. As the recession deepens, cutting public spending is a bad idea. "You cannot cut your way out of a recession," as Gordon Brown encapsulated it in his pre-Budget warm-up yesterday. So the Government has turned everything it said in the past on its head and is borrowing like there is no tomorrow – which, for most of its members, there may well not be, so they might as well. The Conservatives, on the other hand, expect to form the government in the middle of next year, by which time the bottom of the recession will probably have passed, and the emphasis will have switched from protecting jobs to encouraging growth and tackling the burden of inherited debt as quickly as possible. They will not be trying to cut their way out of a recession; they will be trying to restore order to the public borrowing requirement, which may well be threatening to re-start inflation by then.

There the parallel with Blair before 1997 ends, because though Blair and Brown sought to do nothing to prevent the ERM debacle from assisting their cause (although they had supported ERM membership), they did try to give people positive reasons to vote for change too. In that respect, Cameron missed his chance yesterday. Apart from recycling his own soundbites, he said nothing to advance the green cause. He also failed to pick up the Chancellor on the huge increase since November in the estimate for borrowing this year – and the absence of any means to close the gap in the future apart from a few sin taxes and a couple of largely symbolic tax rises for the rich.

No, he sat tight, and is waiting for the keys to No 10 to fall into his lap.

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday. His blog is at johnrentoul.independentminds.livejournal.com