Simon Carr: Cameron hasn't even begun to grasp the challenge

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The Independent Online

David Cameron, freshly returned from two weeks' paternity leave, has got another big positioning speech coming up today. The last one got a pretty good press. Matthew Parris, the eminent Conservative commentator, found it elegantly written, and above all "thoughtful".

Personally, I find "thoughtful" a code word for "drivel". On that understanding, I avoided reading the speech until yesterday morning. But I was wrong. It wasn't drivel, as we know it, lacking the content orsubstance or momentum that drivel implies. It was drool, attaining only rarely and in its most ambitious passages the condition of drivel.

One secondhand, boilerplate, administrative nostrum stood out from the others. Cameron told us: "Instead of issuing top-down instructions, we will enable bottom-up solutions." Ben Bradshaw, the Animal Health minister, said this very thing in the Commons last year. I am not alone in wanting to see Ben Bradshaw's bottom-up solution for myself, but if the Tories are relying on this New Labour deceit, they're in deeper trouble than yet they know.

The new Tory position, it appears, is based on two principles: trusting people and sharing responsibility. These words, for those who have heard them for a decade, produce a long ache below the belt. The big idea is "to respond to state failure by empowering individuals and civil society". They won't be able to do any of this. They are strategically, intellectually and politically unprepared for it. They simply haven't done the work. The gang of four that ran the New Labour revolution spent the early part of the Nineties really, really working at the party's philosophical machinery. Cameron's Council has been at it for six months and has produced a pitcher of something that isn't even drivel.

Over 10 years ago, David Green, the director of Civitas, published a book called Reinventing Civil Society which mapped out the ground very thoroughly. It was a powerful, persuasive, almost life-changing document. He showed how many independent local communities in the early 20th century had produced almost street-by-street structures for welfare insurance; they were successful because they were policed by the very people who were the beneficiaries. The state nationalised the schemes and produced the myriad of unintended consequences that still bedevil large state welfare institutions.

There have been 10 years in which Tories have failed to think seriously about how to denationalise these welfare monopolies. Ten years in which they have failed to keep up with Tony Blair's more-market impulses. Ten years in which they didn't thrash through the argument for vouchers. What energy they've wasted, flipping and flopping from one failed position to the next.

Here are some questions that need to be answered if Tories want to sound with bell-like clarity:

n Are Tories in favour of more equality, or are they content to let inequality widen further? If the latter, how is the general benefit of that to be expressed? What is the Tory equivalent of Labour's "We act for the many, not the few". I asked Michael Gove, the Tory MP and Cameron's close adviser, that question during the election. He said: "I don't do soundbites." Or, yet, succinct expressions of a political philosophy.

n What about Mrs Thatcher? Was she a good thing or a bad thing? Has the party "learnt lessons", or would you (will you) do it again, if circumstances come round again?

n Tories say they will "trust professionals to do the job without interference from Whitehall". What will you do when medical and educational professionals decide that shorter hours and higher pay will help them approach their work with greater enthusiasm and commitment?

n Tories say a Tory government will empower the voluntary sector. By giving them money if they meet your definitions? Won't that make a mockery of the concept of volunteering? Considering the classical education of your front bench, have you really not understood the different concepts of order in the words "cosmos" and "taxis".

Au fond, Cameron has still failed to internalise Blair's Tory-type victories. It would be genuinely difficult, he argues, to identify anything except economic stability that is to the Government's credit.

It's not difficult, let alone genuinely difficult. How about: cheap labour is everywhere, there are more jobs, more holidays, more cars, more schools, more hospitals, more university places, more-market in the NHS. Labour also invaded Iraq and brought in top-up fees (both Tory propositions). Oh, and public spending has gone up 50 per cent (which Cameron now says he thoroughly approves of).

The opposition is so far behind the game it's no wonder they're behind in the polls.