Peter Jones: Manifesto short on detail while polished leader looks, oddly, a class apart from his shadow team

If party members don't think George Osborne is up to the job, it won't take a lot for that view to take hold in the public mind

IT LOOKED good, it sounded good, and some of the messages were pretty powerful. But was the Conservative manifesto launch as "close to perfect as any as I have seen" and "clear, coherent, and genuinely compelling" as one veteran Fleet Street political journalist gushed shortly afterwards? Steady on.

The most impressive aspect of the launch was David Cameron. He sounded confident, as though he knew what he was talking about, was not glib, and was gently self-mocking. In short, he looked like a potential prime minister, and any party manager would be well pleased with that as a result.

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But as Allan Massie wrote here yesterday, this election looks very much like 1992, when an immaculately presented Labour party under Neil Kinnock was well ahead in the polls of a tired Conservative government. But the rigours of the campaign told on Mr Kinnock, most infamously at a rally in Sheffield in the last week, while the much-derided figure of John Major strengthened to lead the Tories to a narrow win unpredicted by the pundits.

In this campaign, there are those leaders' debates to come, and how Mr Cameron performs under that pressure will go a long way towards determining whether he can increase his present polling lead enough to ensure an outright win.

And yet these debates, though they will occupy much media space, will not be the only deciding factors. Manifestos, while read by few, have an influence too. It is not so much what the several thousand words in them say, but the boiled-down messages that come from them which are important.

Here the Tories have a couple of things which are quite compelling. The first is labelling Labour's proposed National Insurance tax increase a "jobs tax". At a time of high unemployment and when many of those in work are seriously concerned that their job is insecure, it is a strong message.

It is not just a simple appeal to self- interest – that Labour will put up your taxes while the Tories will not. It also says that the tax increase will threaten the economic recovery, adding to the insecurity already felt. And it is a message which is supported by many businesses, meaning that what the Conservatives are saying is being reinforced in a lot of workplaces.

As such, if the Tories really work on this message, it could have the same effect as their claim during the 1992 election that Labour would drop a "tax bombshell" on voters. This was based on a Labour pre-election mock budget and which turned out to be a prime reason why Labour failed to oust a government well past its sell-by date.

The second is the attack on big government. Britain has been through a long period of expansion in public spending which has failed to produce the results Labour said it would. Yes, the big public services of health and education are better than they were a decade ago, but the gain in service has been a lot less than the increase in spending.

People are aware of that, so there is a ready audience out there hoping to hear how government, and the amount of taxpayers' money needed to support all its arms, can be cut down to size. People are also aware that current levels of public spending are unsustainably increasing the national debt which will impose a heavy burden on taxpayers for years to come.

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And yet this is where the Conservative offering begins to fray apart, and the weak links in the Tory would-be ministerial team begin to emerge. As one questioner put it to George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, after the launch: "You are saying 'Vote for us, you will have to do more and we will do less for you'?"

Mr Osborne of course rejected that, but his explanation was so long and tortuous that I completely lost track of it. In modern politics, if you cannot boil down your core offering to a few simple propositions, you haven't got a message.

Indeed, during Mr Cameron's question and answer session with journalists, Mr Osborne flunked badly. Even when Mr Cameron gave him advance warning that he was going to have to respond to a difficult question about green taxes, he could only mutter something about getting back later with an answer.

Conversations with Conservative supporters over the last few weeks have told me that there is a widespread view that he is not up to the job. If that is what his party members think, it won't take a lot for that view to take hold in the public mind.

The failure, too, to spell out how the big public spending deficit will be cut, beyond just that it will be, undermines the "we are all in this together" main campaign theme. It invites a highly sceptical electorate, which thinks it did not dig the hole into which the British economy has now fallen and for which it blames the banks and the Labour government, to conclude that if the main alternative cannot tell us how we are going to get out of the hole, then we are not so "together" with them.

This pretty much removes the gilt from otherwise quite appealing aspects of the Tory manifesto which sets out policies to stimulate small business growth and, most unusually for the Tories, growth in social non-profit enterprises that, in my view, are a significant but much overlooked tool for boosting activity in poorer areas.

Yet without knowing the backdrop against which these things might fit (the net effect of encouraging self-help in disadvantaged areas while cutting government support could be negative), it was hard to conclude that the Conservative manifesto was a complete picture.

Indeed, the more I looked at it and its launch, the more I felt that the chosen venue of the derelict Battersea power station, meant to symbolise a country in need of regeneration, had another meaning. It was rather as though in order to bring it back into use, the Conservatives were inviting me to fix it armed only with the contents of my garden shed. I think I need to know a bit more than that.