Many commentators have been calling for David Cameron to be more explicit in announcing what he intends to do if he becomes Prime Minister. Tim Montgomerie, for example, has argued that he will not be able to do the difficult things he has to do, in a time of likely unpopularity and even crisis, unless he has told the British people in advance the broad range of measures he thinks are necessary.
It’s wrong to think too mechanistically about manifesto commitments. Voters don’t swing behind a candidate mainly because of the policies enumerated in the election literature. They are not approving a five-year-plan. They are looking to elect a leader and a team that can be trusted to make good decisions on their behalf.
Obviously if the Conservatives have firm plans and particular policies they intend to enact, then it is a simple matter of honesty to share them before an election. They will have many, which will be described in the manifesto. But their future handling of the economy, especially at a complex and extreme moment, is different. They have already indicated deep concern about the deficit and warned that difficult decisions may need to be made, both on spending and taxes: nobody can expect we’ll get to the sunny uplands in a few easy hops. Osborne cannot predict whether the economy is now heading safely up, staying flat, or on a double-dip course. We are in unknown territory and nobody is quite sure what to do and how. We like our politicians to say they know what they’re up to, but they hardly ever really do. Getting them to make statements now on how much and where spending will be reduced, and where taxes will be, cannot help them make good decisions later.
What we really need to know is: how will they make decisions? What kind of people are they? Are they fully on our side? Are they competent? Do they have the strength of character to make unpopular but necessary decisions? Are they honest? Can they deliberate? Do they know the difference between trying to control everything, and taking responsibility for what matters most? Can they be firm in adversity? Do they surround themselves with smart and independently-minded people? In a nutshell: when the unexpected happens, can we trust them to do the right thing?