Having just watched David Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show, I feel a little as if I've just witnessed a conjuring trick at a children's party -- puffs of smoke, but no real magic.
As expected, the Conservative leader was articulate, polished and smooth, but also slippery and frequently vague, failing to give conclusive answers to the big questions.
In a studiously calm tone of voice, he repeated the words "modern" and "compassionate" ad nauseam, invoking the spirit of Tony Blair when he said:
I haven't made these changes some wheeze to get elected. This is who I am; this is what I am.
But he didn't actually explain what exactly it is that he is. As Marr said at the end of the interview: "I still don't know whether you are a radical or a central manager."
The focus was on message and image, rather than conviction or ideology. For example, Cameron used the "very, very frank, and clear, and positive" Conservative commitment to ringfence the NHS budget as evidence of a reformed party. This rhetoric describes the image that the party hopes to convey with the pledge, but does not offer any detail about why it has ringfenced health spending, or how it will deal with the implications. In response to Marr's suggestion that this could force cuts of up to 20 per cent for other departments, Cameron fell back to his default position: "I don't know the figures, but at least we're admitting there will be cuts."
Similarly, when Marr pushed Cameron on George Osborne's scathing criticism of government plans to increase National Insurance, the Tory leader made a virtue of vagueness. Unable to commit to reversing the NI increase, Cameron declared: "This shows that we're being very disciplined -- we will not pledge to get rid of it until we work out how." He defended his confusion over marriage tax breaks on the grounds of "responsibility", too.
Of course well-thought-out policy is desirable, but it seems that this notion of "responsibility" is being invoked as a smokescreen to disguise a simple fact: the Conservatives don't have all the answers. Repeat something enough, after all, and eventually it will stick.
Disappointingly, Marr didn't pick up the issue of inheritance tax, though Cameron himself made a nod to it when he said that Labour was sending an anti-aspirational message: "Don't leave money to your children." The Tory leader utterly refused to engage with issues that were embarrassing to him. He interrupted Marr to speak about his "strong team" when the presidential style of that giant poster was mentioned, and when asked what Lord Ashcroft thought of the pledge that all peers should be UK taxpayers, he said: "He's very happy about it."
Cameron did make a few policy announcements, aimed at small businesses. These include reducing the time it takes to start a new business in the UK, making insolvency levels more lenient to stave off bankruptcy, and legal reforms to allow everyone to start a business from their homes. He also said that the Tories would impose an annual cap on immigration and tighten up the student visa system.
But these are relatively small measures. Cameron said he prided himself on bringing the Tories away from fringe issues and into the mainstream debate on areas such as health and education, but this is irrelevant if he does not engage in any sustained and detailed way.
His appearance today confirmed what we already knew: he is a showman, but policy is still a weak point for him and his party. Labour must subject these spectacularly vague statements to proper scrutiny, as it did with the marriage tax proposals before the disasters of last week took hold. Retrieving that momentum may be the only way for Labour to save itself from a crashing defeat.
PS: Having blogged several times about The Poster of our boy Dave, I must give special mention to his (pre-prepared, I would guess) joke about the airbrushing fiasco: "I didn't have anything to do with it, but Samantha did say to me, 'If that was airbrushed, get your money back.' "