Safe Dave shows little substance

Back in February this year, when Tory leader David Cameron first unveiled the Conservative Party's new Statement of Aims and Values, it is fair to say that I was rather underwhelmed.

Back in February this year, when Tory leader David Cameron first unveiled the Conservative Party's new Statement of Aims and Values, it is fair to say that I was rather underwhelmed.

Among its startling revelations were that the Tories believe in a strong economy, stable communities, caring for the environment, trusting people, and representing modern Britain.

My initial reaction was that the really interesting thing about the document was that a party with serious aspirations to form a government should find it necessary to make such a statement in the first place.

The point being that, for years and years and years, the Conservatives had actually been perceived by the public as not being in favour of those things

Well, this week Mr Cameron finally released "Built to Last," an updated version of the policy blueprint which attempted to put some much-needed flesh on the bones.

But while it's a definite improvement, the document does little to answer the oft-repeated charge against the Tory leader that he is all soundbites and no substance. For starters, Mr Cameron should have taken care to avoid summarising the document's main theme as a "responsibility revolution".

This sounds far too like William Hague's ill-fated "common sense revolution" for comfort and will inevitably invite speculation that it could end up going the same way.

As far as regional audiences are concerned, doubtless the most eyecatching pledge is to abolish the unelected regional assemblies which have remained in place despite the North-East referendum result in November 2004.

Actually it is scarcely new. Each Tory leader since John Major has pledged to

dismantle part or all of the regional apparatus of government.

It's almost certainly a vote-winner, in that there is little affection for the unelected bodies that were set up by Labour as precursors to what John Prescott hoped would eventually become elected institutions.

But for my part, I still doubt whether the aim of returning the assemblies' functions to "local government" is actually achievable, in that it is in the nature of politics for power to accrue to the centre.

To take one example, Tories' plans would see strategic planning devolved from the regional to the local level

But local authorities are not, by their very nature, bodies that think regionally. Their role is to worry about their localities, not think about the wider economic or social impact of their actions.

And what happens when local authorities disagree with each other, as they inevitably will, about which one should get that new business park, or that new housing, or that new link road?

Well, the answer is that Whitehall ends up having to sort it out - and so power becomes re-centralised rather than being devolved.

What of the rest of the Tory document? Well, to be honest, it strikes me as something of a curate's egg.

It certainly contains a few interesting ideas, notably Mr Cameron's hint at a system of "carbon pricing" as well as tough targets for carbon reduction in new cars.

I particularly liked the idea of offering new routes into teaching through other professions, thus giving young people potentially valuable insights of life in the real world as opposed to the teacher training college.

And as for the pledge to reduce health inequalities, well, it is good that the Tories now recognise that they exist.

Other likely vote-winners include giving Parliament the power to decide the next time we go to war, and scrapping the Government's ludicrously expensive and unpopular ID card scheme.

But there is still far too much vagueness and vacuity - for instance, Mr Cameron's pledge to find "a constructive Unionist response to the West Lothian Question".

Well, I'll tell him now the answer to that one.

He will either have to abolish the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, or set up an English Parliament with equivalent powers.

Whether he opts for this route will be an interesting test of how serious he is about confronting the really difficult issues.

But leaving the policy document to one side for the moment, it is undoubtedly the case that the Conservatives approach this year's party conference season in better heart than their opponents.

Unlike his two fellow party leaders, Mr Cameron can go to his conference in Bournemouth secure in the knowledge that there is absolutely no threat to his leadership.

For Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell, it is a very different story. He has already been warned by leadership rival Simon Hughes that he effectively needs to shape up or ship out.

As I have said many times before, the Lib Dems have only one week in each year when the political spotlight is on them rather than the other parties, and Ming simply has to make the most of it.

Meanwhile for Labour, the continued high profile of Home Secretary John Reid has added new spice to what now seems certain to be a bloody succession battle when Tony Blair stands down.

The Prime Minister will come under intense pressure to "name the date" in his conference address in Manchester, but so far shows absolutely no sign of being ready to do so.

As for me, I am taking my customary two-week late-summer break to recharge my batteries before the "business end" of the political year gets under way.

Something tells me I will need it. September is going to be a very interesting month.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer