An illiberal campaign disguised as sweet reason

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The Independent Online

The presentation of the party manifesto is a rite of passage in every election campaign. Yesterday's breakfast-time effort by the Conservatives sprang two surprises. First, for all the slick styling of the publication, the document itself was conspicuously slim. Mr Howard hastened to assure his audience that this was not because ideas were running short, but because he wanted people to read it. We hope they will.

The presentation of the party manifesto is a rite of passage in every election campaign. Yesterday's breakfast-time effort by the Conservatives sprang two surprises. First, for all the slick styling of the publication, the document itself was conspicuously slim. Mr Howard hastened to assure his audience that this was not because ideas were running short, but because he wanted people to read it. We hope they will.

Then there was the deliberate omission. After tantalising the voters for weeks with half-promises of tax cuts when they could be afforded, the manifesto offered not a clue about where these tax breaks might fall or who might benefit. This was not, a defensive Mr Howard volunteered, because there was indecision, still less - perish the thought - division, in the upper echelons of the party. No, the idea seemed to be to string out the good news and maximise the publicity: an announcement would be made in the party's own good time.

And this, it has to be said, was about the limit of novelty. Unwittingly, no doubt, the Tory manifesto served to highlight one of the party's greatest difficulties. If you shut your eyes and let the words wash over you, you could almost believe that you were listening to a presentation by the Labour Party - a Blairite Labour Party, of course. Appeals to sweet reason, self-interest, a little scaremongering and a smattering of American-style sloganeering along the lines of people being deprived of the chance to "be all they can be" - a situation that would, of course, end once a new Tory government was in place.

The Conservatives are pledged to match Labour's promised spending on public services pound for pound. They advocate more choice in public services. They want better hygiene in hospitals, more discipline in schools, more nutritious school dinners - don't we all? There is a flick of the free-market with a plan to subsidise operations undergone privately; a flick of opportunistic paternalism with a promise to scrap top-up fees for higher education. But no grander differences. Bureaucracy and red tape is where all the envisaged cuts would fall, just as they would do under Labour.

To this extent, Tony Blair's scolding of the Tory document yesterday as "a fraudulent prospectus" was disingenuous. So closely are the two parties tracking each other's pledges that "derivative" might have been a more appropriate criticism, and could be mutual.

A Tory world would be a successful and decent society where people had the chance to make the most of their lives - read Mr Blair's "opportunity society". And then there is the war. With the benefit of hindsight, more Conservatives must wish that the party had voted against following the US into Iraq. They are left with Mr Howard's uneasy effort to square the circle: deploring the Government's "misrepresentation of the intelligence", while embracing the vision of a democratic Iraq.

Subtract those elusive tax cuts from their platform and what mostly remains of the demarcation line between today's Tories and Blairism is an unsettling tone that presupposes the superiority of Britishness and exalts "the British dream". The Conservatives' election platform reflects the "simple longings of the British people", the "forgotten majority", "the people who make up the backbone of our country". These are weasel words for this country in this day and age. They are not overtly xenophobic, but they have a certain edge that is distastefully compatible with the tough pledges for quotas on immigration and asylum intended to remedy "a system in chaos" and "borders out of control". This campaign is already turning nasty.

"Are you thinking what we're thinking?" the Tories ask repeatedly in their manifesto, as on their election posters. Well, no, actually; when it comes to the future of this country, we had something quite different in mind.

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