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It is a myth that David Cameron and George Osborne have no ideas – from elected police chiefs to par

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How far has David Cameron followed the New Labour model in opposition? The comparison is often made between Cameron and Tony Blair, not least by the Conservative leader's closest colleagues, who quote from definitive accounts of how Labour secured power more than 12 years ago as if they were manuals on how to win elections under any circumstances.

As the next campaign moves into view, we can make a considered comparison. By November 1996, New Labour's policies and themes were more or less in place for an election the following year. Presumably the same applies to the Conservatives now. Or perhaps not.

Let us begin with one very precise parallel between Blair and Cameron. Both sought to address their parties' vote-losing pasts directly. After Labour's fourth successive election defeat in 1992, polls suggested that few voters trusted the party to run the economy. Blair and his shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, therefore made economic stability the centre of all policy-making. They argued that stability and social justice went together, and one was not possible without the other. By the autumn of 1996, every policy announcement related to this single overwhelming theme.

Similarly, from the day Cameron was elected leader at the end of 2005 he tackled the fatal perception that the Conservatives were the "nasty party". In his acceptance speech he declared that "there is such a thing as society, but it is not the same as the state". The phrase, which seemed to be a direct challenge to the party's Thatcherite inheritance, was followed by several related ideas such as "social responsibility" and "the post-bureaucratic age". To the surprise of Cameron and his senior aides, his speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester in October, in which he attacked the excessive role of the state in people's lives, was seen as a swing to the right. The aides had cause for surprise. Cameron was making a case rooted on the right, but it was not a swing of any kind. He had been making the same argument for four years.

Outlining a vision is the easy bit. Linking policies to the oratory is more complicated. Blair was ruthless in making the connections with his overall theme. By the autumn of 1996, he and Brown had agreed that they would not change the rates of income tax and would stick with the Conservatives' spending plans for the first two years of a new Labour government, although they did not make the dramatic announcement until the following January. Already Brown had announced strict fiscal rules to bind his economic policies in ways that were aimed at reassuring the markets. Privately, he was also planning for the independence of the Bank of England.

At the same time, Labour's small incremental policies sent out a signal about more ambitious commitments to social justice, although they were imprecise about what form those long-term ambitions would take. The pledge to cut some classroom sizes was emblematic, a tiny policy to be paid for by ending the assisted places scheme, which gave a small number of pupils access to fee-paying public schools. The only specific tax increase was an almost universally popular one, a windfall tax on the privatised utilities that had made huge profits. A great deal of detailed work was carried out to make sure the proposal was credible.

Cameron has policies that match his vision of a smaller state, and they have evolved consistently. His "hug a hoodie" speech in July 2006 did not signal a march towards the centre-left. His arguments were based on Iain Duncan Smith's theme about the centrality of the family in addressing issues relating to poverty. From the beginning, Cameron argued that other institutions such as the family and the voluntary sector must take a bigger role.

It is a myth that Cameron has few policies. Wherever you turn, there are proposals aimed at shrinking the state and, in theory, transferring power to users of services. The Conservatives plan to introduce elected police chiefs, allow parents to set up "free schools", abolish central targets for the NHS and establish a separate independent body to be in overall charge of the health service. Most fundamentally, they plan to set up an independent body to advise on public spending levels, historically the most important task of elected politicians. They have numerous policies focused on heightening accountability in the public sector. Taken with proposals to cut public spending in real terms, the policies flesh out Cameron's belief in a smaller state.

Labour is wrong to claim that the Conservative leader is only obsessed with day-to-day headlines. Instead, Cameron is vulnerable to the charge that, while he is armed with radical policies, the details are still vague. What will the powers of elected police chiefs be, and to whom will they be accountable? What will the relationship with the Home Office be? The Conservatives are still deciding.

Detailed scrutiny

In July 1996, Blair told me he took whole weeks off during which he examined policies in detail to make sure they would withstand the scrutiny of an election campaign. After one such exercise, he decided that he must offer a referendum on a Scottish parliament, a move that caused a furore at the time. Similarly, Brown and his adviser Ed Balls headed to various locations in Europe where, undisturbed, they went through every detail of economic policy. By the autumn before the election, the result of these labours was a story of unyielding consistency - a task made easier by the narrow ambition of many incremental changes.

The Conservative narrative is much more uneven. To take two examples of many: Cameron rails against quangos, yet plans to set them up to determine the fate of the NHS and public spending. He attacks "big government", while pledging to increase spending on the NHS. Still, both leaders score highly in relating vision to specific policies. That is more or less the limit of the common ground. The differences between them are much greater.

One of the biggest and most underestimated differences is the internal context. When he became Labour leader in 1994, Blair inherited policies and a party that had already been substantially reformed. Cameron is leading a party that had been largely unchallenged internally in spite of a decade's unpopularity.

Under Neil Kinnock and John Smith, Labour had been through traumatic changes. I recall having coffee with David Miliband, then Blair's head of policy, in the autumn of 1996, and asking him what was specifically "new" in policy terms about New Labour. Miliband mentioned constitutional reform, the commitment to join the EU social chapter (the Maastricht treaty policies on workers' rights that the Conservative government had opted out of in 1992) and a minimum wage. All three were policies before Blair became leader.

What Blair did as leader of the opposition was to revise existing policies and project them in ways that seemed more exciting than they were. He watered down Labour's commitments on tax, scrapped plans to decide the level of the minimum wage in advance of the election, hailed exam league tables and schools that had opted out of local authority control, made overtures towards the Unionists in Northern Ireland, weakened a commitment to regional government and made more equivocal the party's position towards Europe and Lords reform. In each case, the policy change moved Labour closer to the Conservative government.

Blair was elected leader, in dramatic circumstances, nearly two and a half years after the 1992 election. Cameron acquired the job soon after the 2005 election and did not inherit policies from a predecessor that he was obliged to retain. Such freedom can be liberating as well as daunting. Cameron opted, on the whole, for tonal change, rather than to act as Blair did in reverse and shift towards Labour in policy terms. To adapt John Prescott's slogan of "traditional values in a modern setting", Cameron placed Conservative values in a modern setting. Indeed, Prescott's phrase applies more to the Tory leader, who has put a modern case for familiar Conservative policies. In his revisionism, Blair challenged some of his party's values.

Another difference relates to economic policy-making. The rigidity of Blair and Brown may or may not have been wise, but it is in marked contrast to the approach of Cameron and Osborne. They began by arguing in favour of Labour's spending plans and against tax cuts, the theme of Osborne's party conference speech in 2006. By the time of his next speech to conference, in 2007, a tax cut had become Osborne's big idea, in the form of the near-abolition of inheritance tax. In 2008, Cameron and Osborne called for immediate spending cuts, and they have since pledged to reduce spending at a faster rate than Labour. Arguably, the recession forced the change of direction, although other right-of-centre leaders in power started to increase public spending and state activity in response to the economic crisis.

Plans for poverty

Brown was machine-like in his discipline during the early years of New Labour. It was during this period that he lost the art of talking like a human being in public. But from the autumn of 1996, no announcement unravelled in the way that Osborne's proposals on limiting cash bonuses for bankers, outlined in a speech to City workers last month, started to fall apart within hours. Between October 1996 and the election in 1997, no member of Labour's shadow cabinet said a word that implied a spending increase. Most Labour shadow cabinet members despaired of saying anything at all.

In contrast, the current shadow cabinet is considering plans to alleviate poverty and welfare reforms with high start-up costs. The introduction of "free schools" and a premium for poor pupils, in which additional cash is targeted on parents with low incomes, would also be expensive. By the autumn of 1996, Labour's message was relentlessly clear. It would spend more effectively, but it would not spend more. Currently, the Conservatives' plans to cut the ­overall level of spending do not add up. They may do so by the time of the general election, but they are leaving it later than New Labour did in the mid-1990s.

Apart from the economy, there were bigger gaps in Labour's programme in the run-up to the 1997 election than there are now in the Conservatives' policies. To be more precise, Blair decided that he wanted to postpone certain decisions until power was safely secured. The indecision took the form of pledges to hold referendums - on a single currency, electoral reform for the Commons, a parliament for Scotland, an assembly for Wales and the introduction of a Mayor for London. The referendums highlight the extreme defensiveness of Blair's approach to policymaking in the build-up to the 1997 election. Cameron has been bolder, or less careful, and is left with fewer get-out clauses.

As is often the case in British politics, nothing is what it seems. In the autumn of 1996, Blair was hailed as a crusading radical leading the country to a new dawn, when in fact he was being cautious and incremental. Cameron is widely regarded as a centrist, pragmatic leader when he proposes unprecedented spending cuts, a drastic shift away from the state and a level of Euroscepticism that echoes, rather than challenges, his party's recent past.

Steve Richards is chief political commentator of the Independent and a contributing editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro