Man with a plan?

3 Oct 08
MIKE THATCHER | Responsibility was the name of game at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham.

Responsibility was the name of game at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham.

Out went the Bollinger, triumphalism and, belatedly, the cardboard cut-outs of David Miliband clutching a banana. In came sobriety and statesmanlike speeches about ‘putting aside our differences’ to save the nation from economic meltdown.

Responsibility, said a very serious David Cameron, was for him ‘the most important word’. And how could it be otherwise, in a week of more banking collapses, a stalled US bail-out scheme – and Gordon Brown edging ahead as the leader most trusted to manage us through a financial crisis?

Eager to rebut the ‘novice’ charge, Team Cameron has come up with an economic rescue plan and some Churchillian soundbites about backing the government in its hour of need. But the details do not bear close scrutiny.

Parliament, unlike the US Congress, does not require bi-partisan support for emergency measures to tackle the banking crisis. Cameron’s pledge was pure showmanship.

Meanwhile, a proposed Office for Budget Responsibility (that R word again) is meant to curb ‘spendaholic’ tendencies and forestall future booms and busts.

It’s a neat idea in theory. But what difference a purely advisory body would have made under the current circumstances is debatable – as is the desirability of looking to unelected experts for a panacea for the ills of ‘casino capitalism’.

As for what the Opposition clearly regards as a cunning wheeze – a two-year freeze on council tax for cost-cutting local authorities – responsibility is not the word that springs to mind. How councils are meant to pay for their soaring wage, fuel and service bills – let alone the weekly rubbish collections promised by the Tories – is entirely unclear.

As both Cameron and his shadow chancellor repeatedly remind us, the Treasury cupboard is bare. Trimming consultancy budgets or cracking down on quangos is unlikely to make up for the shortfall – or fund eye-catching pledges such as a major expansion in single rooms in hospitals.

A self-styled government-in-waiting, intent on demonstrating its political gravitas, needs to offer more than political gimmicks and unfunded wish-lists.

Perhaps, for starters, some seriously thought-out proposals to reform local government finance. Now that would demonstrate responsibility.

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