The third man

The Tories’ and Labour’s sense of entitlement has been challenged in a strange and brilliant spasm o

Most of the time British politics is concentrated in the urban valley that runs down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square and through Parliament Square before fanning out across the Westminster plain between Victoria and the Thames. But during an election campaign, the tribal denizens of this cosy habitat go into exile in the rest of the country. Party grandees fetch up in market towns and ministers haunt suburban doorsteps, while London SW1 goes eerily quiet. Politics turns inside out.

The civil servants remain, but they dress down and take long coffee breaks. Westminster is currently populated with bureaucrats in trainers, sipping lattes, sending pointless memos to one another and in private moments, fretting about cuts.

Labour's pre-election Budget envisaged a ­reduction in departmental spending of around 12 per cent over the next parliament. No government in living memory has pulled Whitehall's belt so tight so fast. The Tories say they would cut even more. David Cameron has made a campaign fetish of his personal hostility to bureaucracy. His "Big Society" manifesto promises revolutionary change in the way government works, with greater transparency, tighter financial controls and much more involvement from charities and business.

Con tricks

The problem, the permanent secretaries mutter, is that the people Cameron would rely on to implement reform are the same ones he would be firing under his economic austerity plans. Besides, the civil service has very little axe-wielding experience. The machine is run by people who are trained to keep their heads down, glancing up only to ask for money and, in the words of one top mandarin, "building their careers by polishing diversity-awareness profiles".

The politicians have been in denial about how hard it will be to cut the bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy is in denial about how deep the cuts will go. Tens of billions of pounds are due to be clawed back every year from 2011 on. The notion that this can be done without harming "front-line services" is a fantasy.

In that context, the opening weeks of the election campaign felt like a scene in a used-car showroom. Strapped for cash, the voters are forced to trade in the British state for something smaller. The big party salesmen shiftily promise a deal - much like your old model, only cheaper and more efficient. You'll hardly notice the difference. Honest.

The electorate didn't need much grounding in economics to smell the con. That is why, before the televised leaders' debate, nothing any of the candidates said seemed to have an impact on opinion polls. One survey in the first week of the election battle found more people identifying a National Insurance tax cut as a Labour policy than a Tory one. This was supposed to be the defining issue of the campaign, and it turned out no one knew who was on which side. The same poll found that only 4 per cent of people thought the parties were being honest about their tax plans and just 6 per cent thought they were being told the truth about cuts.

Against that backdrop, it isn't surprising that Nick Clegg was so effective in the first debate. The Liberal Democrats haven't got a masterplan to eliminate all £167bn of deficit, but they are prepared to say out loud that the cuts will hurt and to name things that people might like but government can't afford: the child trust fund, some tax credits, Trident.

That candour was not confected for the debate. When Clegg's team started planning election strategy last year they recognised that the party's main weakness in the past had been implausible wish-list manifestos. So they prioritised economic credibility long before the deficit emerged as the main political battleground. "We have policies that we know some people might not like," says one top Lib Dem, "but they won't find anything that doesn't add up." As it turned out, Clegg needed only a little fiscal frankness to cut through the Lab-Con phoney bickering.

Both main parties would lose seats in a sustained Lib Dem insurgency, but the bigger threat is to Cameron. Although it can never say so, Labour's ambitions were downgraded a while ago to depriving the Tories of an overall majority. Downing Street aides have long talked about a hung parliament as a kind of victory. For Cameron, by contrast, a hung parliament would be a catastrophe, not just because it might force him to share power but because it would end the tacit contract between the "progressive" Tory leadership and the hot-blooded right wing of the party. There are plenty of Conservatives who have gone along with ­Project Dave only on the understanding that it would work as an electoral ploy.

Cameron of arrogance

The strategy relied heavily on voters seeing Cameron as the only alternative to Gordon Brown. Clegg disrupted that simply by looking fresh and sounding plausible at a podium next to the Tory and Labour leaders. As a result, Cameron has had to redefine his message, practically begging the nation not to return a hung parliament. "The only way we're going to get change," he urged in a hastily recorded election broadcast, "is with a clear, decisive result." He added that "any outcome" other than a big Tory win would lead to "more of the old politics".

That is a dangerous line for Cameron to take. It gives the impression of impatience to move into Downing Street and frustration with the electorate for its coy reluctance to hand over the keys. For the Tories explicitly to attack the idea of a hung parliament feels a bit like campaigning against the voters instead of seeking their support.

Labour is not immune from a similar intellectual arrogance. Brown's main campaign message is that economic recovery is safe in his hands alone and that a vote for the Tories would be a reckless gamble. That can come across as more accusation than invitation. Grow up, the Prime Minister seems to be saying. Don't be fools! Such talk quickly provokes our national contrarian tendency.

Both Labour and the Tories went into the election with the assumption that they had a right to form a government, and then looking for ways to square that with the electorate. The voters, it turns out, didn't like that campaign. In a strange and rather brilliant spasm of democracy, they seem to have ordered up a new one.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman