The Tories show their hand

Manifesto launch appears all things to all men -- but the choice for the electorate is emerging

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Like Labour yesterday -- who pushed the "Blairite" message to certain elements of the media -- the Tories have briefed selected bits of their manifesto to selected audiences in advance of their manifesto launch today.

And so David Cameron has finally abandoned the pretence of not emphasising immigration, resulting in an excited show in the Daily Mail heralding the prospect of migrant numbers falling to 1980s levels under the party's proposed cap. This, despite objections from big business in today's Financial Times, where London First, the umbrella group, has warned of a threat to competition in the early stages of the economic recovery.

But the Murdoch-owned, free-market-supporting Times, meanwhile, gets the "freedom" message. It says that "The manifesto will be presented as a series of invitations to citizens to take back responsibility from the State."

And this, crucially, is where what both Gordon Brown and Cameron have acknowledged is the "big choice" in this election. The new, post-crash battle-line is between an active role for the state (Labour) and "less government" but a "big society" (Conservatives). Brown, who yesterday claimed to lead the party of "middle and modest" earners, is at the same time unashamed of the Government's record of fiscal stimulus and public ownership of the major banks. The Tories, on the other hand, remain wedded to a slimmer, less interventionist government.

On the face of it, the Tory basic message is appealing -- especially to a media with a centre of gravity to the free-market right. Whether, though, the party's campaign theme -- "we are all in this together" -- can stay standing alongside its pledge on inheritence tax cuts for the very rich, remains to be seen. Labour strategists claim they are "relaxed" about today's launch because, they say, the Tories are forced to show their hand. "They cannot hide from their own manifesto," one said.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg last night became the first leader to stand up to the (considerable) test of an interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC1. That he did not slip up is a measure of how much he has grown into the job. Understandably, he refused to indicate he would get into bed with either major party in the event of a hung parliament. But the one line to emerge clearly was that he would vote against Tory cuts if they began this year.

And so, the battle-lines are emerging, starker than ever in this parliament. The fashionable myth that there is no major difference between the parties in this election, should be rejected. There are huge questions in this election, including, essentially: should the market be free.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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