Steve Richards: Cameron is a conviction opportunist

The key to success in opposition is to build a coherent programme, not one set of policies for one audience and a different set for another
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The Independent Online

The election is starting to resemble a World Cup tournament without any football being played. The campaign is the last chance to scrutinise policies before one of the parties gets a chance to implement them. Instead, we are getting a lot of post- and pre-match analysis, but no match.

Here is a summary of the questions whirling around the campaign: what if Labour comes third in terms of the vote but wins most seats? What if the Conservatives win most seats, but fail to secure a majority? What if Labour dumps Gordon Brown and elects another leader? What if Brown stays? What would David Cameron agree to if he had to negotiate with Nick Clegg? What would Clegg demand in talks with either of the other two? Would Clegg be able to accept any arrangement given he is bound to consult his party in what is known as a triple lock?

I could go on. I should also make clear I am an avid fan of pre- and post-match analysis. Two of my heroes are Brian Clough and Kevin Keegan, not for their achievements in football, but for their performances on the ITV 1978 World Cup panel, when they neither kicked a ball nor managed a team. I cannot remember a single match from that tournament, but can recite virtually every exchange with Clough and Keegan on the panel before and after the games. I got a perm very similar to Keegan's in the immediate aftermath. You are reading a column from someone who loves all the endless talk.

Nonetheless, this campaign is getting silly. In truth, no one knows the answers to the questions I posed at the beginning, including the leaders. Contrary to the impression that might have been given yesterday, Clegg had not spent the weekend contemplating what he would do in a hung parliament. He does not know what he would do. It would depend on the precise outcome. He spent spare time on Sunday preparing for the final televised debate that takes place this Thursday. Not surprisingly his main focus, and those of the other two, is over how to maximise support on polling day. They will face the aftermath when it arrives.

Cameron's attempt to maximise his support took a new turn yesterday. He rediscovered an interest in green issues, making them a theme of his press conference. It was like the early days of his leadership, when his main strategic objective then was to target the Liberal Democrats. In between he seemed to lose some interest in the environment. At his manifesto launch, staged before the outbreak of Cleggmania, he was questioned about green taxes and could not recall precisely what his party's latest line was. He asked George Osborne, who was sitting nearby, to look up the relevant section in the manifesto. Osborne shuffled nervously as he consulted the document. Fortunately for him, Cameron moved on and the question was not addressed.

Post-Cleggmania Cameron would not have been so casual with the environment. His policy agenda tends to follow the mood of the times. Compare his attempt to highlight a so-called liberal and progressive message yesterday with the "personal manifesto" he gave to The Sun newspaper on the Friday before his party conference last autumn, shortly after that newspaper's endorsement. Then he played the small-state, anti-European reactionary in line with The Sun's editorial position. Such leaps are unsustainable. The key to successful opposition is to build a coherent programme with wide appeal, not one set of policies for one audience and a different set for another.

Policy coherence is not the Conservatives' strong point. The shadow Schools Secretary, Michael Gove, gave an agile performance on yesterday's Today programme, in which he attacked the BBC for daring to highlight a concern from the Tory leader of Kent Council. But the concern is widespread among Conservative councillors. They fear Gove's crusade to set up free schools will take money away from existing schools. Polls suggest there is little appetite for the free schools and yet, in spite of the Conservatives' emphasis on the need to cut public spending, there is apparently plenty of spare cash for parents to set them up.

If this had been a normal election, the funding of these schools would be an urgent issue, along with practical questions about where they will be sited and who will have the time to establish them. The Conservatives also propose a pupil premium for poorer parents, on top of the funding that is already targeted at less affluent areas. Will this be paid for by transferring expenditure from leafy, Tory-supporting suburbs to Labour constituencies in the North-east of England? I doubt it. Presumably this is a question that Cameron and Gove can answer now.

Yet they are asked most of the time what they would do in a hung parliament, even though they do not know those answers. Their policies are hidden under a mountain of hypothetical questions in which they become the equivalent of Keegan and Clough as pundits, relatively easy roles to play.

Cameron's flexible approach to policy makes the punditry a little more straightforward. If he comes close to an overall majority, he will seek to run a minority administration and hold a second election when polls suggest he will win. If the Liberal Democrats are more significant players, he will offer them a referendum on electoral reform, but will probably campaign against a change. His party will loathe the contortion but accept it on the grounds that the alternative is a Lib/Lab coalition. Cameron will find the manoeuvre more tolerable as a leader who has already changed his approach to "tax and spend" several times in an attempt to secure power.

Clegg's sudden rise is testament to the failure of such an erratic approach to "change". If Cameron had been Blair-like in his resolution to change his party, as Blair was between 1994 and 1997, he would have won this election before the campaign had begun. Instead, most voters are not convinced and we get the endless questions about a hung parliament. What would you do, Cloughie, and you, Kev?