John Rentoul: Do you want the market or the market?

Cameron and Miliband compete to bash the bankers, but they both intend to safeguard the capitalist system in Britain

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When even the Financial Times runs a series called "Capitalism in Crisis", you might be tempted to think that something big is happening. Do not be fooled: Labour and the Conservatives are competing to be the better custodians of a free-market economy, not to replace it with something else. If you mix up quotations from recent speeches and ask people to identifywho said what, you could easily find David Cameron sounding like a Marxist and Ed Miliband sounding like a neo-liberal – or one of the "horsemen of the austerity apocalypse", as his Shadow Chancellor is now known in trade union circles.

There was, however, an important difference between the twin speeches on "responsible capitalism" delivered by Cameron and Miliband on Thursday. Cameron says capitalism is a good thing that needs to be regulated to get the best out of it, while Miliband says capitalism is a bad thing that needs to be regulated to make it tolerable. Cameron is "capitalism and" while Miliband is "capitalism but". When Miliband talks about entrepreneurs and wealth-creators, you feel he is reading words drafted for him by someone else. Indeed, last week he spoke only of "tackling irresponsible capitalism", regulating this and stopping that. But then, he was speaking at the Consumers Association (Louise Mensch, the Tory MP, pointed out that it was poor advance work to allow a Labour leader who is often compared with his brother to speak under a sign saying Which?).

And, whatever Miliband may say about the coalition taking us "back to the 1980s", he could not be more wrong. I do not think he meant to suggest that Cameron had returned us to a period when the Conservatives won successive elections, but what is more important is that two things have changed since Neil Kinnock faced Thatcher across the despatch box at which Miliband now stands.

One is that the FT's crisis of capitalism has tilted the ground well away from the boisterous pink-cheeked Thatcherism of Cameron's youth. The other is that the Conservative Party itself has moved on, changing to accommodate itself to the tilt, which began partly as a response to the aggressive celebration of the free market in the 1980s.

One phrase in Cameron's speech last week brought this home. He said that Conservatives realise that "people are not just atomised individuals". That is the sort of pseudo-philosophy espoused by Tony Blair, reflecting his insight that what people do not like about capitalism – and did not like about Thatcherism – is that it breaks the bonds of family, neighbourhood and workplace. Thatcher said there is "no such thing as society", and, even though everyone now knows that she did not mean what everyone thought she meant in 1987, the unformed idea that it was possible to have such a thing as society and a dynamic market economy swept all before it in 1997.

Cameron finally got the Tory party to catch up when one of his advisers produced the soundbite: "There is such a thing as society; it's just not the same as the state." That was coined by one of the most important modernisers in Cameron's inner circle, his wife, Samantha.

Steve Hilton, the other restless moderniser among the PM's advisers, has been banging on about a new kind of happy clapitalism from the earliest and most nebulous days of Project Cameron. He ran a consultancy called Good Business, which was all about persuading big companies that responsible capitalism was good for the bottom line.

He it was who thought up the "Big Society", designed to appeal to the anti-Thatcherite feeling that social solidarity is undermined by a free market let rip. It does not make much sense, but then Hilton is not necessarily consistent. The man who got Cameron to hug a huskie now wants to build an airport on a precious habitat in the Thames estuary so that ever more planes can fill the sky.

The Prime Minister's support for "Boris island" is a perfect illustration of the contradictions of populist politics. Cameron is opposed to a third runway at Heathrow, mainly because of the nimby objections of west London voters. He was once against grand public-sector-led building projects; now he wants to build a high-speed railway and a new London airport.

Thus the stage is set for a fascinating struggle. For all that Thatcher was supposed to have transformed British attitudes to secure a decisive victory for free-market ideology, the ideas of non-Marxist socialism remain strong. Tristram Hunt, the historian and Labour MP, wrote yesterday of the long "tradition of British distaste for free-market fundamentalism". The fact is that public opinion is conflicted. Most of us probably think that capitalism is good when we feel better off and we can marvel at the ingenuity of our latest Apple gizmo; but we tend to support North Korean command economy measures when our gas bill goes up or when we get hit for a surcharge for using a credit rather than debit card at the end of a long internet checkout on the easyJet website.

That is why Ed Miliband's complaints about the energy companies' cartel or the "surcharge culture" are clever, even if they are economically illiterate. I personally find his rhetoric of "a very big reshaping of the way our economy works" overblown and tiresome; it is a wild hyping of Labour's programme, which so far consists of making the energy companies put over-75s on their cheapest tariff, and it invites obvious questions about what Labour was doing in government for 13 years.

There is a lot about capitalism that people don't like, and both parties will continue to compete on largely symbolic gestures to bash the bankers. None of it will make much sense if examined closely. What matters is the broad-brush difference of emphasis, whether the voters prefer "capitalism and" or "capitalism but".

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