Steve Richards: So just how is Cameron going to give power to the people?

There's a paradox in aiming to improve services even as the Government does less

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David Cameron's pre-election speech was almost the precise opposite of the one delivered by Gordon Brown last week. Brown launched a battering ram of policies, so many that his arguments were obscured. In contrast Cameron's case was clear, but the means by which he seeks to bring about his vision were fuzzy.

The argument was the one Cameron has been putting since he became leader and is summed up in the words he first delivered when he won the leadership contest and he repeated yesterday: "There is such a thing as society, but it's not the same as the state".

The single statement has brought forth a range of discussions and debates within Cameron's team and beyond about how they would address so called progressive themes such as poverty, the environment and the delivery of better public services.

At the top of the Conservative party the debates are deadly serious. They are not being held solely in order to re-brand their party, although such expedient calculations are bound to play their part. But even after yesterday's speech it is still not clear what binding agents would replace the state. Cameron argued in his speech that families, communities, newly empowered users and providers of services would be key components. Tony Blair put the same broad case 15 years ago.

Against quite a few paragraphs in Cameron's speech I wrote a single word: "How?" I used to do the same with Blair's early speeches only to discover in 1997 that he had no answers to the question in several key policy areas. Most fundamentally it is still not at all clear how Cameron plans to reduce what he calls Labour's debt crisis.

He framed the argument as a progressive one: "The progressive thing to do, the responsible thing to do is to get a grip on debt but in a way that brings the country together instead of driving it apart". Yes, but how? So far George Osborne has announced cuts amounting to £7bn and yesterday there was quite a focus on the areas where Cameron would increase spending.

International Development got a star turn with a video from Bono. Cameron repeated his pledge to increase spending on the NHS, an example of so called big government that he supports, raising questions about his wider argument on the size of the state. In addition he promised to increase the level of troops in Afghanistan as well as improving equipment. He also pledged to expand Sure Start, another example of an active state making a difference.

The essence of the Cameron argument is that if the state withdraws, people and companies will acquire responsibilities and become responsible. Social responsibility is another theme that has recurred throughout his leadership. In some areas perhaps this will be the case.

There is a great deal of interest among those working for Cameron and George Osborne as to how the internet could inform and empower local communities in ways that would revolutionise the relationship between users and providers of services. There is a faith that cultural pressures can be more effective than the big stick of the state – the so-called "Nudge" theory. Such an approach might bring about radical change, but I see little evidence that when, say, bankers are nudged to reduce their bonuses they are inclined to do so.

Still, words uttered in opposition and the stances taken determine what a party will be like in government. Although the means are unclear, a Cameron government would have to address issues relating to poverty, having placed such an emphasis on it in opposition.

The only moment when Cameron's speech came fully alive was in his attack on the current government's record in relation to poverty. He became unusually passionate and the hall gave him a standing ovation. The sequence will be replayed repeatedly if Cameron's smaller state makes the poor poorer, as smaller states have tended to in other equivalent countries. Similarly the NHS and schools had better improve after such a focus from senior Conservatives in recent years.

As with the leadership's commitment to the environment there is no point analysing whether the focus is tactical or has arisen out of conviction. The emphasis has been made and they will have to find the means to bring about improvements in public services, something of a paradoxical objective as their solution is for government to do much less.

Cameron's speech stands as an emblem of the conference season as a whole, which has managed to be informative and a sideshow compared with what is to come. In limited ways we know a little more about the three parties. The Liberal Democrats had some good themes, but messy policies. Labour's conference suggested that the mood of the party was to stick with Gordon Brown. The gathering in Brighton was sombre and introspective, not surprisingly for a party that has cause for introspection and melancholy, but there were occasional signs of energy and strategic thinking.

Not surprisingly the Conservative conference was the most disciplined and exquisitely choreographed. Opinion-poll leads are much the most effective form of control freakery. They give leaders the authority to act as they wish, and troublemakers stand to attention. Europe caused the slightest of wobbles, but on the whole the Eurosceptics behaved themselves. Even the hardened Europhobes will not cause much trouble when Cameron announces that there will be no referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon. If the Conservatives are elected, the public obsession might well return but for now this is a disciplined party that wants to win. Tonally their conference was pitch perfect, conveying a seriousness of purpose and without a hint of complacent triumphalism.

Whether or not the Conservatives will secure power with a triumphant victory is another question and not one answered by the conference season. The Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, won plaudits for his apparent candour over spending cuts, but if his assessment of the scale of the debt crisis is accepted he was not being straight with voters. A lot of distinguished economists do not share his assessment that the situation is as apocalyptically grave as he suggests.

Still, by conflating debt levels with more immediate borrowing, the Conservatives have managed to convey the impression Britain is bankrupt. The cuts proposed by Osborne do no more than rearrange a few ashtrays in a derelict mansion. The real battle will be joined when the government unveils its pre-Budget report, probably next month.

What is clear is that the three parties have chosen to dance on terrain marked "spending cuts", which means that voters will get a chance to contemplate how reductions in government expenditure will impact on their lives. Specifics are dangerous in pre-election periods, as Labour discovered with their shadow budget in 1992.

The nature of the spending debate is one of the wild cards of the next few months. Elections always seem unpredictable in advance and clear- cut in retrospect. But this current battle does some to have more unpredictable elements than usual. They include the unpredictable direction of the public spending debate, the return of the MPs' expenses scandal this autumn, the electoral performance of the Liberal Democrats in England and that of the Conservatives in Scotland and Wales.

By a considerable margin the Conservatives have staged the most successful conference. But there are still several landmines and unanswered questions as they navigate their way towards next year's election.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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