Party promises have some worrying features in common

'POWER to the people' is not the natural slogan of the Conservative Party. But it was centre stage yesterday in David Cameron's launch of his party manifesto. In a message that echoed the inspiration of John F Kennedy – 'ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country' – Mr Cameron sought to breathe life and passion into a traditional Conservative anti big government theme. At the heart of the programme is a call to hand power from government to

The manifesto encourages parents and charities to set up new academy schools, pledges to give people the power to veto council tax rises through local referendums, and promises communities the right to buy their local pub or post office. Laudable aims, harder to deliver in practice and most, if not all, will not apply north of the Border.

Economic measures have been well aired. They include plans to reverse part of the government's proposed National Insurance rise and a promise to raise the inheritance tax threshold to 1 million, freeze council tax (but, again only south of the Border) for two years and to increase NHS spending in real terms every year. There will be an emergency budget within 50 days of taking office to eliminate the bulk of the deficit over five years and a freezing of public sector pay for a year in 2011, excluding one million lowest paid workers.

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There are pledges to cut Whitehall regulation costs by a third and to cut quangos. A further 12 billion, it claims, will be saved by freezing major new IT spending, renegotiating contracts and limiting public sector recruitment.

For all the differences with the Labour manifesto, both documents have worrying features in common. Both give no assurances that the current rate of VAT will be maintained. Both are reliant on fabled "efficiency savings". And both share a black hole: there is no detailed programme showing how exactly the Conservatives plan to slash the budget over four years. As with Labour, a sonorous pledge is given, but the detail is missing. And Mr Cameron seemed weak on detail yesterday.

Everything about this manifesto launch suggests a tactic to move the election battle away from the unpleasant and deeply depressing business of tackling the biggest deficit in our peacetime history. Instead it sought to inject hope and optimism for a period ahead: no bad thing. But the reality cannot be masked.

Do voters really want to be their own bosses, take responsibility and seize power? It is a strange call in a democracy which delegates these activities to politicians. And how odd that the parties are now frantically cross-dressing. Labour claims it is the party of the middle class while the Conservatives pose as the people's party; Labour's message is stick with the tried and familiar; the Conservatives promise big change. But this election is about more than image and polish and slogan. The question remains for voters: which party will better deal with the debt problem we face? These manifestos shy away from some ugly truths.