Steve Richards: The election campaign has begun

Any Queen's Speech is messy. Yesterday's preview was even messier than usual

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Yesterday Gordon Brown delivered the much-hyped preview of his legislative programme to be unveiled in the autumn. When the Queen's Speech is re-announced in October or November it will preview the dividing lines of the election campaign which will be held the following year. That is a lot of previews. Or to put it more starkly: the longest election campaign in recent history began yesterday.

When he was Chancellor, Gordon Brown hit upon the clever idea of holding a pre-budget report. In effect it gave him the chance to deliver two budgets a year. Now he is Prime Minister he seeks to deploy the same device, but on a grander scale. The prime ministerial innovation is much less successful. Any Queen's Speech is always a messy mix of the long term and the opportunistic, without an obvious coherent narrative. Yesterday's preview of the next legislative programme was even messier.

There were some spending announcements, as if Brown was delivering a pre-budget report, or a pre-pre-budget report as we will be getting the actual pre-budget report in November, another preview. Some of the policies were re-packaged. Others pointed in a genuinely interesting direction. All of it had a slightly unreal air: a pre-Queen's Speech months ahead of the next legislative programme, the establishment of pre-election dividing lines a year before the election and the hint of spending priorities when it is not at all clear that in the longer term the cash will be available.

Nonetheless, from a political perspective yesterday's statement was significant on two levels. First it marked a limited resolution of the competing internal tensions within New Labour about public service reform. One of the myths about the Blair/Brown relationship is that there was no real difference between the two of them over policy – and the tensions were all to do with personal ambition. Over public service reform, especially during the second term, the differences were real and serious.

In effect Blair and his followers wanted a thousand flowers to bloom at a local level and, in order for this to happen, they were fairly relaxed about who was accountable to whom and whether some of the flowers were rotten. They wanted to get providers in and let them get on with it more or less unimpeded. Brown was more bothered about accountability arguing, for example, that having put up taxes to pay for the NHS the Government could not give up all control over the way hospitals chose to spend or mis-spend the money. More widely he had less confidence that unfettered markets would deliver better schools and hospitals.

Both Blair and Brown were in agreement about targets as one form of accountability and, subsequently, both accepted there needed to be fewer of them. But in their rows they did not resolve the great conundrum: When the Government is responsible for deciding how much to tax and spend, how does it encourage local innovation and remain answerable to taxpayers over how their cash is spent? Brown made another attempt to answer the question yesterday, hailing the need for "personalised local services" (a term he prefers to "choice") while offering a guarantee that the Government will meet basic demands in whatever way is necessary, from the use of private provision in the NHS to private tutors in schools.

Some senior cabinet ministers hope that the synthesis of entitlements and local diversity is an historic moment, one in which politics can move away from the Blairite/Brownite prism for the first time since the mid-1990s. They point out that even after Blair resigned, virtually ever twist and turn has revolved around the old familiar internal tensions; but yesterday's statement symbolises a new internal unity, in which local freedoms and national guarantees are the best attempt yet to resolve the old conundrum.

I suspect unity will depend more on whether Labour's poll ratings start to improve. David Cameron has been known to observe that authority in politics depends above all on opinion polls. If they are good a leader can impose his will without generating fatal levels of internal tension. If they are bad the dissenters get louder. The polls and the outcome of forthcoming by-elections will determine the mood in the Labour party more than yesterday's statement.

The wider divide between the two parties is the second reason why yesterday's statement merits some attention. The two party leaders have set their course. David Cameron seeks a dividing line between his honesty and Brown's dishonesty – a clever divide that has echoes of new Labour in the build up to the 1997 election when Blair and Brown claimed that the new split was between fair and unfair taxation.

Who is in favour of unfair taxes? Who supports dishonesty? Cameron links integrity to what has been his party's ideological hunger for spending cuts that existed long before the recession. He is armed with the potent ammunition of the Government's own projected spending levels for the post-election period which suggest that significant cuts will be necessary. But he has offered few specifics. This is where he is being dishonest in his honesty. It is easy to win plaudits for being tough in general terms, but where will the axe fall: transport, defence, welfare, roads, schools, police?

Brown seeks to prove that Labour is the party of "investment" – a claim he can make with validity in relation to the recession where the Government has brought forward various spending programmes while the Conservatives would have started to cut. But in the future he will have to cut too, hence the ministerial euphemisms that have started to signal a finessing of his position. Yesterday, Peter Mandelson declared the Conservatives will cut "come what may". Roughly translated that means Labour will cut but only because it will have to do so.

Under normal circumstances some of yesterday's proposals would be seen as a robust and more coherent attempt at encouraging local innovation, while accepting that ministers are responsible too. But whether the cash will be available to make a practical difference is open to question. No wonder the Government has postponed its spending review.

There will be lots of previews, but no spending review. Election campaigns are about winning and positioning rather than candour. We have got a campaign that will last for almost another year.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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