U-turn if you want to, by Philip Johnston

26 Jan 06
Tory leader David Cameron has hit the ground running, ditching old party certainties for the centre ground. But how much substance is there? Philip Johnston has his doubts

27 January 2006

Tory leader David Cameron has hit the ground running, ditching old party certainties for the centre ground. But how much substance is there? Philip Johnston has his doubts

They now like to call themselves Cameron's Conservatives, or that is what is emblazoned on party literature and what comes up in large letters when you log on to the Tory website. No previous leader of the most successful political movement in British history – not Thatcher, not Churchill, not Salisbury – has been so proprietorial with its name. None would have been so presumptuous. Indeed, realising this, they have recently played down the Cameron bit.

But apart from enjoying the alliteration, Tory strategists must be pretty confident in the magnetic power of David Cameron's personality to associate the Conservatives so directly with him before anyone is clear what he can offer.

Leaders are obviously important to any political movement but the Conservatives have been pretty ruthless in dispatching theirs when they are perceived to have become a handicap. Their loyalty extends only to winners. They evidently believe Cameron is a winner. If he isn't, they will revert to being just plain Conservatives.

The other alliterative effect that has been much in evidence is 'compassionate conservatism'. The branding is clear. Cameron is a Conservative, but he is also a compassionate man, a family man, a man who understands the NHS because he has had to use it for his disabled son, who appreciates the importance of finding good schools for his children, who cares about the future of the planet and the wellbeing of his fellow man. He is young and optimistic; not for him a constant diet of carping about the world going to hell in a handcart.

'We will be positive, constructive and reasonable when holding the government to account, and we will be thoughtful, open-minded and energetic in developing the ideas and policies we need to meet the long-term challenges Britain faces,' he said on taking up the reins of leadership.

As well as engineering an immediate shift in education and health policy, reforms and initiatives intended to make the Conservatives look and sound different have come thick and fast on social justice, law and order, immigration, local government, identity cards as well as the environment and global poverty Even traditional party policy on tax cuts is no longer sacred.

Cameron has been persuasive enough to entice into his team Zac Goldsmith as an adviser on global warming and Bob Geldof to help frame policy on debt relief. It has been a breathless, helter-skelter and deliberately rumbustious start that has conformed to the iron law that first impressions are all important. By the time he has completed his first 100 days in mid-March, Cameron intends that few people will still be asking the question David who?

So we hear what Cameron's Conservatives say. But what do they stand for? Are they different from Howard's Conservatives, or Thatcher's for that matter? Is it all a question of repackaging or something more fundamental?

Since Christmas, Cameron and his front-bench spokesmen have made a series of statements intended to reposition the party on the key areas of public policy. They have also been keen to highlight their concern for issues that are not normally associated with the Tories, such as the environment and the NHS. The talk is about 'social justice' and how to meet the challenges of 'globalisation' and 'global poverty'. Gone is the rhetoric of just a few months ago, emphasising tax cuts or controlling immigration; in its place there is robust environmentalism and ambitious plans to improve Britain's education system. These are all 'things that have never been emphasised before by a Conservative leader', says David Ruffley, the shadow minister for welfare reform.

Which just goes to show how short political memories can be. Margaret Thatcher was very keen to tackle climate change and was the first major political leader anywhere in the world to point to the threat when she told the Royal Society, almost 20 years ago, that: 'We have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself… we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability.'

During the 1987 general election campaign, she also made it clear that 'the NHS is safe in our hands'. Shortly after that year's election victory, she said: 'We must do something to help the inner cities.'

By this measure, Cameron is less of a moderniser than people think. Sir John Major, the former prime minister, said that the new Tory leader was in many ways returning to type after a period in opposition in which the party has flirted with ideas for public service reform that risked frightening away the voters. He identified a traditionally pragmatic Tory, who wanted to preserve what worked while dumping what seemed to be outdated. 'The past is a different country and I think we should leave it there,' said Major. 'Many of the policies of the 1980s were absolutely right for the 1980s but I think in many ways they are out of date now.'

The problem with Major's analysis is that the public service reforms that many believe are now required were never actually tried in the 1980s. Thatcher focused almost exclusively on supply side reform of industry, taming the unions and withdrawing the state from vast swathes of production. The health service, the schools, the police and the like were all left largely untouched. While she intended her third-term programme to address the demand side, Thatcher never had the inclination nor, in the end, the opportunity to do so.

The great, and still unanswered, question in the debate about public services is whether financial power can be given to individual users without them having to pay or, if they do, to ensure the payment is either not too much or is covered by insurance or, ultimately, is met by the welfare state.

It is a discussion that is decades old. In the 1970s, market economists such as Alan Peacock and Alan Maynard suggested the introduction of vouchers for health care and education. Until Cameron came along, this idea was driving Conservative policy on schools and hospitals. But, although there is to be an 18-month review of policy in these areas, the voucher – or passport – has been ruled out as an option in advance. So, too, has any insurance-based health scheme.

This has alarmed many on the Tory Right who believe the door should not be closed on reforms that might become necessary as the conventional means of funding the public services start to creak. Leaked Treasury documents recently showed that spending on the NHS will have to flatten out over the next few years and any new money found from increased productivity and eliminating waste. If the Tories close off ideas such as social insurance as a means of raising money, they will end up in a sterile argument with Labour over who can trim the most off existing budgets.

There is still a strong view in the Tory party that the key to improving services is to provide greater capacity and not simply to move people more quickly through the existing system. Before the general election, Tory policy wonks like David Willetts, now the shadow education secretary, argued persuasively that the principal reason why spending more money on hospitals and schools had not worked was because of limitations on supply. He argued that choice, of the sort the government now wishes to see expanded, also requires extra capacity. Choice without options is pointless.

Yet now Willetts has dumped the voucher idea, as has his counterpart at health, Andrew Lansley, not because they think it would not work but because they do not think it will fly. Voters will simply not understand it and to remain wedded to such politically difficult ideas is to risk being branded as uncaring by Labour. Michael Portillo, a former leadership hopeful, said: 'It may be that we can have better health care with a different system but that is not what the country wants. There is no future for a party that tries to stuff reform down reluctant throats.'

But this does not mean Cameron's Conservatives have abandoned public sector reform. It means they intend to approach it from another direction. Cameron, his policy guru Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor George Osborne and the close-knit group of advisers remain committed to structural change. They have to be because Chancellor Gordon Brown, in their eyes, has tested to destruction the idea that spending more money automatically brings improvements.

Amid all the New Year bluster and the apparent retreat from previously unassailable ideological positions, the fundamental difference between the two parties remains: while Gordon Brown – Cameron's most likely challenger in 2009 – believes ever-growing amounts of public spending administered by the state is synonymous with compassion, the Tories still believe it is what you deliver, not who delivers it, that matters. There might be such a thing as society after all, but it is not embodied exclusively in the state.

Letwin, the party's éminence grise, who is overseeing an 18-month policy review, startled some recently by saying the Tories believed in redistribution of wealth, as though this were a revelation. Conservatives have always operated a progressive tax system but they also have sought market-led means of redistribution, such as council house sales and share flotations, which were both empowering and enriching to millions of ordinary people.

'We have to use Conservative methods to lift people out of poverty and get across the message that this is what we are doing,' Letwin said. 'This not a question of repositioning but of designing policies that will help the long-term interests of the country.'

There are, newly promoted to the Tory front bench, people who are strongly in favour of greater decentralisation and more empowerment at the political periphery. Cameron's recent speech on police reform was remarkable because it retained the ideas from the last election manifesto and still seeks to pursue the idea of locally elected and accountable police chiefs. The shadow minister for police reform, Nick Herbert, a recent Westminster intake, made his name as the leading light of the Reform think-tank, which oozed with ideas about making the public sector work better. People like him have not abandoned their ambitions to see the services deliver for everyone.

There is, undoubtedly, a new confidence abroad in the Conservative Party, buoyed by its first consistent lead in the opinion polls since Black Wednesday 13 years ago and by the leadership crisis that has engulfed the Liberal Democrats, whose voters seem most likely to peel off towards Cameron as he emphasises his commitment to values they traditionally hold dear.

For the time being, the Tory Right is giving the new kid the benefit of the doubt because he appears to be something they like, a potential winner. There has been no open criticism from the Thatcherites in the party of Cameron's apparent disdain for everything they believe in because they think, and trust, that he remains a Tory even if he doesn't always sound like one.

Meanwhile, Blair increasingly makes noises that conservative England wants to hear, especially about law and order, and is embarked on a reform of the public services that many in his own party oppose. The Tories argue that they do not go far enough or represent partial reforms that will make services worse for those who need them most. But in that case, why are Cameron's Conservatives closing off options now for more radical reforms later? If a convincing case is to be advanced for different ways of funding health care or greater choice in education then it has to be made years before a general election and not just in the few weeks of a campaign.

Before the last election, serious Tory thinkers such as Willetts believed there were votes to be won on education and health care because people were no longer satisfied with the standards offered by the state monopoly. While the better-off opted out, the poor had no choice but to take what was on offer.

The Conservatives were prepared to offer an alternative, but there is a danger, after three election defeats, that they will lose their nerve just when the ideas they espouse have become increasingly relevant and attractive. Cameron has demonstrated – in seizing the leadership and the way he has used it so far – that he does not lack courage or confidence. He has compassion, too. We wait to discover how much of the Conservatism remains.

Philip Johnston is home affairs editor of the Daily Telegraph


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