Hoping to deliver a killing blow to the ruling Labour Party in the UK’s tight election race, would-be Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled Tuesday a Conservative Party platform that promised voters smaller government, lower taxes, and more of a say in government affairs.
Indeed, the Tories presented British voters with their starkest electoral choice for decades, in a race that has tightened sharply since the campaign for the May 6 vote got under way.
While the Labour platform, released Monday, emphasized preserving and improving public services, the Tories called for voters to have the power to directly elect police commissioners, sack members of Parliament, set up their own US-style charter schools, and veto some local tax increases.
The 130-page Tory manifesto was also aimed at silencing critics of Mr. Cameron who charge that his rebranded party is all about style over substance.
“One of the things that it does, by being quite long and detailed, is to at least convey the idea that he is putting flesh on the bones of what he has been saying,” says Tim Bale at the University of Sussex, an expert on the Conservative Party. “Its weight, as well as the absence of any pictures of Mr. Cameron on its front cover, is designed to suggest that he is more than just a salesman and emphasize that he is part of a serious team.”
Releasing the manifesto inside Battersea Power Station, a decaying symbol of neglect in the heart of London, the Tory leader, who is hoping to lead the Tories back to power after 13 years of Labour control, said that Britons must “stop asking who will fix this and start asking, what can I do?
"People power, not state power. Big society, not big government. We're all in this together,” he added. "Government has an important role to play. But the people's role is even bigger."
The manifesto is the work of a small team centered around Cameron who have been credited with salvaging a party that almost imploded during the 1990s amid bitter internal divisions over its stance on the European Union and a fixation with sending out shrill messages on issues like immigration.
The architects of its new policy platform include Oliver Letwin, a Conservative MP regarded as the party’s "big brain," and George Osborne, the shadow chancellor and a close friend of Cameron. Others include Steve Hilton, Cameron’s master strategist, and Andy Coulson, the party’s press director and a former editor of the tabloid News of the World.
Large elements of the platform will still appeal to social conservatives and those in the party’s old guard.
Members of the long-term unemployed who refuse a job would have to do community work to receive benefits, married couples would get specific tax breaks, and an annual limit would be set for the number of non-European Union migrants allowed in to live and work in the UK.
“What we are seeing is the kind of enthusiasm for civil society solutions over big government solutions,” says Dr. Bale, author of "The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron." “That is one of the ways that Cameron can square the circle between the Thatcherite antistatist thinking that is still quite strong in the party and an appeal to the other, older, Tory tradition concerned with the well-being of those at all levels of society.”
Mark Garnett at the University of Lancaster says that Cameron is at heart a "One Nation" Tory, a believer that everyone in society should be given roughly the same treatment.
One problem, however, is that Britain has changed so radically that "One Nation" prescriptions applied in 2010 may not mean very much, or may often ultimately only benefit the better off, Dr. Garnett says.
“I think it’s fair to say that Cameron himself is a man of profoundly good intentions. But there is a difference between the rhetoric and the reality," he says. "The voters who are going to determine this election are those who remain quite privileged, or are angry that their privileges have been eroded.”
Labour is chasing the same people.
Can Brown survive?
A newly constructed acute-care unit of a hospital in Britain’s second-largest city, Birmingham, was the setting Monday for Gordon Brown’s unveiling of his party’s manifesto, in which he pledged to spur Britain's fragile economy, repair its tainted political system, and push allies for an international levy on banking transactions. The platform emphasized preserving and improving public services.
As well as containing some elements reminiscent of policies associated with his predecessor, Tony Blair, such as using competition to improve education and health services, there was also much to keep trade unions and Labour’s left happy, such as a promise to raise the national minimum wage.
Monday’s document was designed to show that Labour, even after 13 years in office, is a party still fizzing with ideas.
Four polls released Tuesday showed leads of between 6 percent to 8 percent for the Conservatives, meaning that it remains unclear at this stage whether Britain is heading for a hung parliament, in which the Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power.
Never before has that party had a better chance of making the breakthrough that has always eluded it. Led by Nick Clegg, described variously as a breath of fresh air or a Cameron clone, Britain’s third party gets its moment in the sun tomorrow when it unveils the Liberal Democrat manifesto.