Leading article: An optimistic message that does not quite add up

The Conservative manifesto is convincing only in parts

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Sunshine was back on the agenda at the launch of the Conservative Party's general election manifesto yesterday. Talk of an "age of austerity" was banished and in its place, David Cameron projected a vision of a Britain in which power would be devolved, citizens would be empowered and public services would improve (despite the lack of cash coming from the centre).

It was certainly an optimistic message, but does it convince? Only up to a point. The Tory leader delivered a compelling critique of Labour's top-down and statist approach to the delivery of public services. The Conservatives' alternative is to allow willing parents to form new schools, to encourage co-operatives of public sector workers and to introduce elected police commissioners, which, together, would add up to a revolution in the delivery and consumption of public services.

The manifesto provides no detail on what safeguards will be put in place in the event that this bold experiment in devolving power goes awry. The Tories' reply is that because this represents an entirely new way of doing things it would be unrealistic to expect finalised plans at this stage. But do the Tories deserve the faith of the British public as they seek a mandate to embark on this grand experiment? The answer depends on the soundness of the Tories' view of the proper role of the state. Mr Cameron is right to argue that there is too much enterprise-crushing centralised prescription in the public services. But there are worrying signs that the Tories still have an ideological aversion to firm government action in those areas where it is plainly needed.

The Tories' response to the 2008 economic crisis was confused and flat-footed. State intervention in the financial sector prevented an economic disaster, but the Conservatives found it an ideological struggle to come to terms with this, opposing, among other things, the Government's nationalisation of Northern Rock.

The Tories' macro-economic arguments have been unimpressive in recent years, too. First, they called loudly for cuts in public spending, and raised the alarm about the size of the deficit. But late last month they appeared to change their priorities with their promise to reverse in part the Government's National Insurance rise. Now, like Labour, the Tories are unspecific on future spending cuts, which is even more inexcusable given their past hysteria over public borrowing.

There are other aspects to Mr Cameron's agenda that do not add up. The Tory leader claims his party is committed to reducing poverty. But the Conservatives' pledge to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m will help the already wealthy transfer their wealth down the generations, increasing inequality.

The Tory manifesto boasts that Britain has "a major role in the affairs of the EU". But by pulling his party out of the mainstream centre-right European Peoples' Party, Mr Cameron has put the Conservatives on a road towards marginalisation on the continent.

As for Tory policy on immigration, what could be more statist and top-down than an arbitrary cap on the numbers of migrants from outside the EU? Meanwhile, with their stubborn devotion to the discredited first-past-the-post system, the Conservatives have turned their face against serious reform of our political system.

Mr Cameron might have returned to a sunshine message, but it has yet to penetrate the clouds of doubt that still swirl around his party.

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