John Rentoul: Where are our brave leaders?

Gordon Brown dilly-dallies in la-la land and David Cameron shies away from the big issues
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David Cameron does not have the next election in the bag. Despite our opinion poll today, which puts Labour on 24 per cent. Again.

That is a truly dismal level of support. All of the Lehman Brothers Bounce, begun in September last year, has dribbled away. Not even the cunning Baldrick-style plan to keep Gordon Brown off the television for the whole of August has managed to lift the party's rating. Incidentally, that would have been one conversation worth being a fly on the wall for: Peter Mandelson or Sarah Brown or Sue Nye explaining to the Prime Minister why it would be better to avoid media over-exposure in the run-up to the new series of X Factor. Or something. Anyway, however he was persuaded, it has not worked. Not a blip on the cardiogram.

Nor has Cameron's supposed embarrassment by Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP who warned Americans against copying our NHS ("exactly a Marxist system"), had any effect on the comatose patient. Our ComRes poll asked if "the NHS would be safer under Labour than the Conservatives". The answer, on Labour's home ground, was "No".

Despite this, and despite The Economist editing out the "if we win" from Cameron's interview last week in which he spoke of "my government" (at least, that is what a damage-limiting press officer said when the Tory leader's words were published), the Conservatives may fall short. Nothing has changed my view that Alan Johnson as prime minister could improve Labour's prospects. Brown's temporary absence may not have made a difference, but his permanent departure would. I do not claim it would make a huge difference; the Labour brand itself has become tarnished. But a lot of the party's unpopularity is personal to Gordon Brown. The only thing that propped Brown up was the fear among Labour MPs of an early election. Now the election is imminent anyway. It will take a flashpoint to trigger the mechanism. Labour is waiting for its Sarajevo.

Let us leave all that aside for the moment, however. It may not happen; the party may be too demoralised and disorganised to do it. New Labour's 13 years may end with a whimper rather than one last effort to obtain a hung parliament. Let us suppose, though, as the editor of The Economist did, that David Cameron is the next prime minister. That, nine months from now he stands on the steps of Downing Street and says that he has been elected to balance the books.

Just to imagine that is to expose the fundamental incoherence of the Cameron Conservative Party. It is an incoherence that has defined the politics of the past year, but perhaps it takes the pause of August and the creeping imminence of a general election to see it clearly. It was put best by Larry Elliott, The Guardian's economics editor, last week. He pointed out that on Tuesday the Tory leader "warned that Labour's mismanagement of the public finances meant Britain might default on its debts", while on Thursday "he pledged that the Conservatives were now the party of the NHS because only they were prepared to deliver real increases in health spending in the next parliament". Elliott felt this was evidence that Cameron has been given "an absurdly easy ride". That is a matter of opinion, but the implication, that Cameron has somehow been favourably treated by comparison with Brown, is mistaken. The only reason Cameron has been able to get away with such inconsistency is because his policy has been compared with that of a Prime Minister whose position is even more absurd and dishonest than his. Week in and week out at Prime Minister's Questions, Brown has sought to defy the cold inevitability of arithmetic. It was as if he were saying that two plus two was – under a Labour government – something other than four.

Once Cameron's policy is compared with reality rather than this la-la land, its problems become apparent. The Conservatives are said to be interested in how Canada's government managed to reduce public spending by 20 per cent. I know nothing about it, but I do not believe that the starting point was to rule out cuts in the second-biggest spending department. The tension between the pressure to spend more and the overriding imperative to cut government borrowing runs throughout Tory policy. Only last week David Willetts, the Tory universities spokesman, criticised the Government for failing to pay to accommodate the surge in student applications. When I interviewed Michael Gove, the schools spokesman (pages 26-27), he promised "to ensure that the money that goes to the front line in the classroom is protected". The idea that education spending can be cut significantly without affecting "the classroom" is fantasy, and he must know it. In another breath he suggested that the education and defence budgets were more "important"than others, and would therefore avoid deep cuts.

Cameron knows he is up against it. The context in which he used the phrase "my government" to The Economist was when he said that "getting the deficit under control will make or break my government". When accused of being unspecific, he protested: "I can't think of an opposition party going into an election promising spending cuts since 1929." But that is because no election has been fought with the public finances in such a state. It is no use his complaining that he has already been braver than Brown. Brown has not been brave at all.

The reality is that cutting public spending is very, very difficult. I do not believe that anything like the 10 per cent real-terms cuts in non-health spending implied by the current government's plans will be achieved, whoever wins the election. That means that taxes will have to rise. Cameron, for all his "bravery" in promising spending cuts, hasn't even got to that bit of the manifesto. He will need a mandate to take the tough decisions to avoid his government being broken. He has hardly begun to ask for it.

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