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Steve Richards: Cameron has the tone but he still doesn't have the policies

The Tories are the least scrutinised opposition party in recent history

A successful opposition party must convey a reassuring tone and deliver coherent policy-making. The two are connected. In the end a party that seeks to win an election cannot have one without the other. A tone ceases to be reassuring if the policies are incoherent or at odds with the mood music.

Tonally, David Cameron is pitch perfect, conveying a fresh, good-humoured energy and claiming the progressives' mantle at a time when most voters like to regard themselves as modern and forward-looking. But in terms of policy he and his party have been less clear and, where there has been clarity, the policies are too often moving in the opposite direction to the tone. Its approach to Europe is the most obvious example. The pivotal policy area of 'tax and spend' is another.

The admission from their health spokesman, Andrew Lansley, that the Conservatives plan to cut spending by 10 per cent in most departments is no more than a logical consequence of the party's latest publicly declared approach. As things stand the Conservatives are pledged to reduce debt more quickly than the Government and have made much of the fact that they would have started cutting last year at the height of the recession.

This in itself is an important divide with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and not an artificial one. Indeed, it marks a divide with the other governing parties in the Western world all of whom took the decision that getting out of the recession was the most important priority, hence the fiscal stimulus, co-ordinated interest rate cuts, the initiatives announced at the G20 which, contrary to orthodoxy, were fairly substantial.

There are signs that the hyperactivity is working. I wonder what would have happened if the Conservatives had been in power with their opposition to nationalising Northern Rock, their proposals for immediate spending cuts at the height of the recession and their scepticism about the efficacy of internationally co-ordinated initiatives. I doubt if Britain would have felt very modern and progressive in such circumstances.

That is the immediate past, although what happened as the banks headed for collapse and the differing responses of the parties should not be forgotten. But Andrew Lansley looked ahead in his candid analysis. His party has made clear that it regards deeper spending cuts, implemented more speedily, as the necessary response.

Of course Labour would have to cut too. The public sector is going to be leaner under any party and some of its more complacent beneficiaries will have no scope for complacency any longer. But there are genuine differences about the timing, pace and scale of the cuts. The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, has been open about this and has merely phrased his intentions differently to Lansley.

If Cameron had modernised the policies as well as the tone, he would have followed more moderate centre-right parties elsewhere and supported the hyperactivity in principle but challenged the specifics, backing a fiscal stimulus but opposing a cut in VAT. Instead the Conservatives opposed any stimulus. Mild mannered tone and Thatcherite substance were at odds.

The party also has problems when it comes to more detailed policy-making over related specific issues. Quite a lot of it does not add up. To take one example, with a great flourish the party leadership announced its support for a high speed railway line at the start of their annual conference last year.

Later they stated that the project would be funded by the savings from the scrapping of the extension to Heathrow airport. This seemed a great triple whammy; innovative, efficient and green. Indeed when the Government foolishly came out in favour of the Heathrow extension, Cameron popped up to repeat his opposition and outline some tiny green initiatives that looked more spectacular than they were.

Nonetheless the sequence was impressive. But then their transport spokeswoman, Theresa Villiers, declared in a subsequent Commons debate that her party was not against airport expansion in principle, but only opposed the specifics of Heathrow. They would be happy to explore other locations in the South-East. So their opposition is not due to environmental objections. There would be no spare cash for a high speed rail line as the money would be targeted at another possible site. Or would it? I am still not clear.

Cameron has told one audience he is in politics above all to improve the NHS. Another audience was told he is in politics to cut taxes. At a fringe meeting in 2006 he declared that tackling global warming was his overriding priority. Which is it and how will he go about ensuring he achieves his apparently flexible priorities? Again I am not sure.

This is the least scrutinised opposition party in recent history. With good cause the unruly Labour party has attracted virtually all the attention from the beginning of this Parliament. The moment the last election ended it was plunged into a crisis over when Blair should go, with some Labour MPs calling for his departure the weekend after their third victory. With Blair refusing to resign the story ran up until the so called 'September coup' in 2006.

Since Brown became Prime Minister there have been two attempted coups against his leadership, a non-election and the biggest economic crisis for at least 70 years. No wonder Cameron has been able to pop up every now and again to declare that the Conservatives have changed with few bothering to probe the assertion more deeply.

Successful opposition is an elusive art form. Why bother very much with policies when the details could make you unpopular and a government is falling apart?

The most depressing element is not that the Conservatives will get away with it. I am not sure that they will. But, once more, I fear there will be no candid debate, before or after the election, about the future of public services. The public debate has been dishonest for decades. Currently there are endless calls for inquiries into the war in Iraq when the origins of the conflict are well known, and yet public spending decisions that impact on our lives are conducted in the dark and no one seems to mind very much.

There is colossal waste in the public sector. Most ministers admit it privately. But addressing the inefficiencies is complex and nearly always carried out in ways that impact on frontline services. How do we cut out waste? Can some of the savings be invested in improving services rather than all of it being spent on re-paying debt and cutting taxes? Are we doomed to return to the public squalor of the 1980s or can we find other ways of paying for and reforming services so they reach the standards available in the rest of Europe?

These are the questions that should be debated, but an arid exchange between a Labour Government seeking to re-live previous 'tax and spend' debates and a Conservative party still pretending that it can cut spending and taxes and improve public services will not get us very far.