John Rentoul: Ready for your close-up, Mr Cameron?

The Conservatives have a 15-point poll lead, but we still have little idea what they would do in government

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It has been a week for fantasy politics. Yvette Cooper and Harriet Harman have been written up as leaders of the Labour opposition after the election. Frank Field has renewed his call for a government of national unity. This is understandable. We need a bit of escapism in troubled times.

But let us try a bit of real politics instead. The issue is not which of the many currently implausible candidates will be left in charge of a demoralised Labour Party after defeat. Nor a parlour game of who could get which job regardless of party (the usual names are Vince Cable for Chancellor, Ken Clarke for Business and Field himself for Department of Thinking the Unthinkable, but it goes a bit hazy after that). Surely the real issue is how David Cameron will handle the challenge of national leadership at a time of crisis.

Even if Labour pulls together and fights back, as the past few months have shown it can, it is unlikely to make it. Even if Gordon Brown stands down, as an ally cited by the well-informed Steve Richards in The Independent last week said that he might, it wouldn’t be enough. (Presumably, he would be replaced by Alan Johnson: two days before Lehman Bros went bust, boosting Brown temporarily, I heard that Nick Brown, Gordon’s chief whip and ally, had said that in the event of GB going, “they” were all going to back Johnson against, at the time, David Miliband.)

Of course, the quirks of the system mean that the Conservative share of the vote has to be eight percentage points larger than Labour’s to win a Commons majority. But I suspect that the opinion polls still overstate Labour’s support. In the last four election campaigns, Labour has been overestimated by an average of five points. If that is still true, the Tories need be only three points ahead in the opinion polls to win. At the moment the average Tory lead is 15 points.

The question is, therefore, what would David Cameron do? Some aspects of his likely inheritance look rather ugly, and suggest that he may be a one-term prime minister. He would have to put up taxes, and not just by stealthy goose-pluckings here and there. He would have to put taxes up by enough to wipe out any growth in voters’ disposable incomes for every year of his first term and probably for every planning year into the future. His party would be restive.

On public spending his party would be even more restive. Last month Cameron said that spending on schools, the NHS, international development and defence would be protected from cuts. Which does not leave much.

On the other hand, in other respects he would be taking the job on unusually favourable terms. Everyone knows that the economic crisis requires difficult and unpopular decisions. Assuming that the bottom of the recession has been passed by the time of the election, his focus will be on restoring sound public finances. Most people – apart, paradoxically, from the right wing of his own party – will know that he has to put up taxes. (“Oh, I hope not,” a member of the shadow cabinet said to me.) Most people know that whoever wins the election will have to put up taxes, and most of them would rather the tax-phobic Tories did it than “active state” Labour. Most people also know that public spending will have to be restrained for years to come, and most of them will have more faith in the Tories to do that than Labour.

Cameron has other advantages. Unlike his four immediate predecessors, he would take office with a Cabinet of his own choosing. Thatcher had to have “wets” in her Cabinet for the sake of party unity; Major inherited her “dries”. Blair had an elected shadow cabinet; and Brown inherited his Blairites.

But Cameron has his own people, as far as is possible in a parliamentary system. Plus Kenneth Clarke. They are, with the exception of Clarke and Francis Maude, untested by cabinet experience; another four have been junior ministers.

Is Cameron ready? In a sense he was born ready. He is a pragmatist and a ruthless enough politician to whom power will come naturally. Yet it is unclear what he wants it for, apart from a feel-good mush similar to Blair’s vacuous pre-election rhetoric of strong families and strong communities.

We know almost nothing about what a Cameron government would do, except that it would not be radically different from what a Labour government would do, especially one that had to work with the Liberal Democrats in a hung parliament.

Last week’s Tory “green paper” on localism, called Control Shift, had a clever, futurist title but little content. Except that it reasserted the policy of directly elected police chiefs, an idea that Labour toyed with, but which Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, recently dropped. It would be an important change that might have dramatic and unanticipated effects in the long run. It could be an unexpected legacy of the Cameron years, in the way that the Human Rights Act has been of Blair’s time.

In recent interviews, Cameron has adopted a downbeat, expectations-lowering tone. Talking to Iain Dale of Total Politics, he cited his support for student top-up fees as an example of where “you have to give an answer that is truly disappointing” to many of the people in his audiences.

But his preparations for government not far advanced, not least because all fiscal assumptions have been torn up in the past five months. His discussions with senior civil servants have yet to go beyond the pleasantries. The process of setting priorities is just starting. A “more elected” House of Lords is “not an urgent priority”, he told Dale. And “education reform and the family policies” – I assume that means the pointless tax subsidy for marriage – are “what I want to do in the early part of a Conservative government”.

It sounds rather like the “education, education, education” sound bite with which Blair came in, and taking up the schools reform programme where Blair left off.

That much is obvious and right, but it – and the promise of slightly sounder money than the other lot – does little to set the pulse racing. Back to fantasy politics. It is easier and more fun.

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