Michael Brown: I wish I'd had the NI policy to call on as a Tory candidate

It provides the opening doorstep gambit throughout the campaign
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The Independent Online

So time has run out for Gordon Brown as he sets off later this morning to Buckingham Palace for his audience with Her Majesty. The "manure" or "moat" Parliament will finally be put out of its misery.

Predictions are a mug's game, but here goes: David Cameron will be Prime Minister in 31 days' time with an overall majority. My bet at the bookies is a working majority of around 30. The Tory Party has, surprisingly, now won the pre-election campaign and are clearly the favourites. Of course there will be bumps along the way – Chris Grayling's anti-gay gaffe will be merely one of many – but it is hard to see Labour recovering from the opinion poll doldrums at this late stage.

Labour's average standing in all the polls hovers around 30 per cent – about the same as the Tories throughout the 1997 campaign. Admittedly in that election, on this equivalent date, the Independent's Harris poll recorded a Labour lead of 26 per cent (Labour were on 52 per cent) but the anti-government figure stood then – as now – at about 70 per cent of voters. So the default position of the electorate is that they want rid of this government and Gordon Brown. Mr Cameron's task is to ensure that he convinces us that by voting Lib Dem, Ukip, BNP or Green we could end up precisely with what we have rejected: Mr Brown remaining Prime Minister by accident.

At last, after a shaky new year, the Tories have armed their candidates with the ammunition required on the doorstep. It may be dodgy economics but no one can argue that the proposal to part-reverse Labour's national insurance (NI) tax increase in 2011 is not smart Tory politics. Already Labour have lost the battle over George Osborne's credibility, and Lord Mandelson's accusation, that businessmen who support the Tory proposals have been duped, hints at serious panic in the Labour high command.

The Tory tax sweetener will not, on its own, necessarily be a winner – but it provides the opening gambit for any Tory candidate on the doorstep who previously wondered how to engage sceptical voters. Imagining myself back in Battery Street, in Immingham (part of the Cleethorpes constituency which I lost in 1997), this NI proposal is easy to explain and guarantees a hearing.

Few voters will trouble themselves with arcane arguments between the parties over abstruse issues relating to national debt as a proportion of GDP, deficit reduction plans, fiscal this or monetary that. "What are you going to do for me?" is still the most powerful, albeit despairing, demand from the voter who has the fate of the most menial parliamentary candidate, as well as the party leaders, in their hands for a few weeks.

Of course, once a voter has been engaged their natural scepticism of politicians' promises kicks in. The bribe is treated with caution and the rest of the party package is soon under scrutiny. "But your mob is led by that rich posh toff who doesn't know how the other half lives" is bound to be thrown at many Tory canvassers over the next four weeks.

Mr Cameron now has, however, a plausible answer to this charge following the launch, last week, of his Big Society programme. I attended his one-day conference, involving over half his shadow Cabinet, initially determined that it was part of the "voodoo" politics – so beloved of some in his inner circle who are obsessed with image and who brought us "hug a husky" and "hug a hoodie" during the "let sunshine win the day" early phase of of his leadership.

But even an old dinosaur, like me, so yearning for the Thatcher Tory Party of yesteryear, was persuaded that there is something, in this "Big Society – not big Government" theme which may define a Cameron Government.

Essentially it is a model which recognises the limits of the state's ability to help poorer citizens and seeks responsible participation in society from everyone – through personal, civic and corporate engagement. Ironically, the case for this call to arms for the population to come together to solve problems and improve life for themselves and their communities, has a greater relevance in a recession than when Mr Cameron first outlined such thoughts during the "sunshine" phase of his early leadership.

Even Philip Hammond, the impressive Tory bean counter who will have the task, as Chief Secretary, set out with clarity how a nation reliant on community action could reduce demands on the taxpayer, thereby improving efficiency in public services. This is an idea that may make politicians more ready to turn the tables by challenging voters on the doorstep, in future, by throwing back the question "but what are you going to do for society?"

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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