From little acorns, by Alex Klaushofer

28 Sep 06
The Conservatives have not just got a new logo but a brand new set of policies. Both might be a bit sketchy, but have they got the potential to grow into something more meaningful? Alex Klaushofer reports

29 September 2006

The Conservatives have not just got a new logo but a brand new set of policies. Both might be a bit sketchy, but have they got the potential to grow into something more meaningful? Alex Klaushofer reports

It's official. The New Tories have won. With 92.7% of party members backing the latest statement of Conservative thinking in Built to last, David Cameron can head off to the Tory annual conference next week, confident that he has almost whole-hearted endorsement for the pro-happiness, eco-friendly, internationalist brand of Conservatism that has placed it ahead of the government in recent opinion polls.

Behind the scenes, a group of senior Tories – most of whom have already been in government – have been formulating the Conservatives' new public service agenda for some time. The Public Service Improvement Policy Group, one of six policy review groups established under the Cameron leadership, has been meeting since May, consulting public service professionals and chewing over the problems that beset health and social care, education and social housing. Earlier this month, it published its first report, The wellbeing of the nation.

More policy documents, including a report on health next month, are promised. Their findings will be woven into one uber-report by policy review chair Oliver Letwin next summer which, if accepted by the leadership, will form the basis of the next Tory manifesto.

Whether stimulated by a whiff of power or the sheer excitement of the policymaking process, the New Tories certainly have a spring in their step. In an interview with Public Finance, shadow education secretary David Willetts admitted that the new political climate has affected the way the world treats the party. 'It changes the dynamic,' he says. 'For the first time since 97, you're thinking, “This might be the next government”.'

Yet scan the documents that capture the New Tories' emerging thinking, and some striking familiarities are immediately apparent. A future Conservative government, promises the PSIPG report, would embrace 'a new partnership with the professionals' and 'an unambiguous commitment to growth' in public services. Policy principles generally associated with New Labour, such as localism and 'equitable access', litter its pages. Statements from the policymakers themselves confirm a growing sense that the Tories' public service programme might not differ radically from the one pursued by the current government.

'I think we can learn from the things Labour have done wrong; I think we can preserve the things they've got right,' says Willetts. 'I don't want to dismantle everything.'

Citing his influences as Sweden, Finland and government adviser Professor Julian Le Grand, Willetts declares himself unbothered by claims that Tory policy is too close to Labour's. 'I'm not exercised about whether it's distinctive or not,' he says. 'The Conservative Party has driven itself demented over the past ten years by trying to find clear blue water between us and Labour, regardless of what that policy was. Differences will emerge – but they should be a consequence of our reaching a view about what's best for the country.'

Pointing to the Tories' support for the recent education Bill, he adds: 'I agree with a lot of what Andrew Adonis says. I think the question now is who has the impetus, who has the dynamism to see these things through, who can learn from the mistakes that have been made?'

According to Nick Boles, director of Policy Exchange, the think-tank closest to the party, Willetts' sanguine attitude is widely shared in its upper echelons. 'Neither he, nor Oliver [Letwin], nor David Cameron would be bothered if there wasn't a difference,' he says. 'The direction of travel that Tony Blair has seemed to want to go in the past three years – that is not going to change dramatically. But the speed and enthusiasm will be greater, and there'll be less internal opposition.'

The lack of distinctiveness, say Tory-watchers, is a sign of the consensus about the importance of public services that now dominates the political landscape, one that might be as much about Labour's conservatism as it is about the Tories moving to the Left.

'Is there a coming together? Yes, I think there is. Is there a consensus? Yes, there probably is as well,' says Andrew Haldenby, director of the think-tank Reform.

Kieron O'Hara, author of After Blair: David Cameron and the Conservative tradition, agrees: 'It's obvious that, as the Tories move to the centre, the two parties converge – the Tories will be less distinctive.'

The shift to the centre is, inevitably, inviting a backlash from the Tory Right, with figures such as John Redwood and Public Accounts Committee chair Edward Leigh calling for a more 'Conservative' agenda involving tax cuts instead of support for the burgeoning public sector. With the core values vote suggesting that just 7% oppose the direction the party is now taking, it looks as if the threat from the malcontented minority is minimal, at least for now. In the meantime, the modernisers have enough on their plate just learning the ropes as they move on to the public service territory carved out by New Labour.

'It's not their native language – they're using a second language,' says O'Hara. 'They're all doing their best to cope with an agenda they've avoided for 30 years. They all learnt their trade at a period when public services were genuinely despised.'

What then, apart from the natural enthusiasm of those deprived of power for a decade, do the Tories have to offer? Their Big Idea is an improved relationship with public service professionals, an end to what they see as the people-bashing and control freakery that has accompanied so much of New Labour's public sector reform programme.

According to O'Hara, this marks a dramatic shift in Tory policy since the 2005 election. 'The rhetoric has changed an awful lot. Simply the fact that they're making warm fuzzy noises to public servants is a huge step,' he says, pointing out that public sector workers make up a large proportion of the electorate. 'It's key to all types of expansion that they get some public servants on their side.'

In part, the new Conservative thinking on public services is a twist on the classic Tory advocacy of freedom – minimise state intervention and leave the professionals to get on with things themselves. But, as PSIPG co-chair Stephen Dorrell admits, the party has not yet addressed the question of which positive mechanisms would achieve this. 'That's exactly the issue that we now have to get into,' he says. 'The detail is the second stage of the work.'

He promises a root and branch review of the regulatory system, aimed at balancing 'respect' for professionals with the need for regulation. It would be a form of accountability 'decided through the professionals, rather than something that's done to the professionals by management', he says, a form of self-regulation that, rather than allowing professionals to promote their own interests, linked to 'accountability to patients, parents and to the community at large'.

So far, the only area where the Conservatives are approaching concrete proposals on smart accountability is in crime. Haldenby sees this as a rare example of Tory discontent with the status quo. 'I think it is really only crime that they've said things are nowhere nearly good enough,' he says. According to Nick Herbert, shadow police reform minister, plans include the direct election of a mayor or commissioner by local communities. 'We want to make police more accountable for their performance,' he says. 'You could call that person a sheriff.'

The other key idea is what in Tory jargon is called 'opening up the supply side'. Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley says that doing so, by encouraging competition between providers and promoting patient choice, will be central to Conservative management of the health service. It's a position that takes him to the heart of one of the knottiest of the problems exercising the current government: how to maximise patient choice and local control of services while minimising inequity.

Lansley thinks he can achieve the right balance by giving the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence a strong hand in imposing minimum standards, while allowing clinicians more freedom than they currently have. 'All of this will lead to differences,' he says. 'I hope those differences will not be in the nature of privileges and advantages – they would be in the nature of priority and choice.' But he admits that finding the right balance won't be an easy task: 'I'm not saying we've sorted out all these problems.'

It's a problem that is replicated in the Tory commitment to combine equitable access to quality education with its new proposal to abandon catchment areas in the name of choice. But given that the current government, well versed in this kind of conundrum, is struggling to come up with the right answer, what hope do the inexperienced Tories have of resolving it? 'If these problems were easy to solve, they wouldn't be problems,' responds Dorrell. 'But you don't just run away from a problem.' Tory policy will strive for 'a better balance that steers a course between conflicting objectives', he adds.

Yet the biggest challenge that an incoming Conservative government would inherit is not even being discussed, according to Reform's Haldenby. 'There is a complete conspiracy on the part of all parties not to talk about the slowdown in public spending,' he says. 'Whether they it like or not, the world will change on April 6, 2008, when this decade of public spending comes to an end.' Thereafter, he adds, the drive for efficiency and production will lead to 'some pretty tough decisions'.

For the moment, intent on convincing the electorate that public services are safe in Conservative hands, the party high-ups do not seem keen to flag up the issue. At the seminar launching the PSIPG report, Letwin went out of his way to make sure that the scribbling journalists had got the key point, reiterating what had already been said. 'We need to get it clear to the public as a whole that a Conservative government has an unambiguous commitment to the growth of public services. We are after growing public services, not reducing them,' he said. 'I hope that's as clear as I can make it.'

But Boles from Policy Exchange cautions against interpreting the commitment to growth too liberally. 'You are not going to find a Conservative government spending more in total than a Labour government,' he says. 'Yes, they are going to be spending more on public services in proportion – but not more than a Labour government.'

According to Paul Kirby, a partner at consultancy KPMG working on public service reform, this under-recognised problem is already starting to bite at local level. 'They'll be lots of talk of swingeing job cuts in local government,' he says, predicting a year from now. Ironically, he thinks that the need for cuts, combined with Tory councils' track record in making savings at a local level, will benefit the party as a whole. 'They will say, “we've shown what we can do”,' he says. 'It's something they can use in the argument when they get their hands on central government.'

Further along the policymaking road, the Tories will also need to address the vexed question of organisational reform if they are to convince public service professionals they know what they are doing. But, so far, the messages are somewhat mixed.

For Willetts, wooing the sector involves promising some respite from the relentless pace of public sector reform. 'I hope that everybody would heave an enormous sigh of relief that you don't have half-baked initiatives launched every week, none of which are ever going to come to fruition,' he says.

Yet Cameron, reviewing the first edition of O' Hara's book for the Guardian in January last year, took issue with the author's calls for a let-up. 'His proposal that we should freeze the process of reform is way off the mark,' he wrote in his former incarnation as policy director.

Now, according to Lansley, Conservative health policy will require some organisational change. 'What I'm not proposing is that we will throw primary care trusts and strategic health authorities up in the air and change their boundaries – I'm not going to have organisational upheaval for its own sake,' he says. 'But if you ask people, “can we leave things as they are?” the answer is “no”.'

In the meantime, it's wise to remember that Tory policy proposals at this stage retain the quality of 'deniability': the ability to be countermanded from the top. That's something that Cameron, as he heads off to Bournemouth to juggle the demands of his new party faithful, the malcontented Right-wing minority and the wider, vote-wielding public, is unlikely to forget.

PFsep2006

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