It’s not good enough for the Tories to pinch Labour policies, says Simon Heffer. They must appeal to the people on the economy, education, drugs, immigration and Europe
A shadow minister said to me last week, ‘We might have a more credible leader now, but we have less credible policies.’ We were talking after the Tories’ announcement on health care — throw more money at the problem — had been followed by the Labour policy — throw more money at the problem. With the Tories still battered after the Euro-elections, and many of their notional supporters still sceptical about them, the aping by the opposition of what the government seeks to do is causing despair. Everyone assumes the election will be next May or June. Whether it is or not, there is no time to be lost in making serious policy.
A fortnight ago, Peter Oborne noted the rise of the ‘Notting Hill Tories’. This collection of soi-disant and largely self-regarding ‘intellectuals’ comprising MPs and journalists who are all friends of each other is now said to influence Tory policy, not least because of the inclusion in this group of Rachel Whetstone, Mr Howard’s right-hand woman. Given that what they, in their pragmatic and liberal way, seem to understand of the disillusioned Tory core vote, God help the party if that is true. I don’t blame Mr Howard for feeling cross with the ‘cranks, gadflies and extremists’ who deserted his party for Ukip and who take a more robustly traditional view of conservatism than the modernisers. However, he needs their votes, and so had better swallow his pride and start appealing to them, and recognise that little coming out of the salons of Notting Hill is likely to appeal in the slightest to non-metropolitan punters.
The battleground of the next election will be taxation, the public services, immigration and law and order. The Tory party must be as distinct as possible from Labour, and determined not to be influenced by its social vision. So the first thing Mr Howard has to do is get radical with spending. Instead of fearing Labour accusations of cuts, he should boast about those he plans to make — in the non-frontline staff who have been the public sector employment boom of the last seven years. Sadly, Mr Howard is still apparently of the opinion that spending more is good. He has to persuade the public to rediscover the concept of value for money and stop thinking of spending as a good in itself. He needs to tell the country that without sacking a single doctor, nurse, teacher, police officer or carer he can cut the public sector wage bill and, with it, taxation.
His party at present promises to allow public spending to grow less quickly than under Labour. This is an intellectually indefensible position. It assumes that Labour’s already excessive levels of spending are sustainable, which they are not, and necessary, which they are not either. The Tories are afraid to talk about sacking Labour’s client groups, who have been employed in their hundreds of thousands in the public sector. They must conquer that fear. It is only by cutting out waste that money can be given back to the public who earn it, and to the productive sectors of the economy that badly need it. Oliver Letwin is a genuinely clever man, but has nonetheless been hypercautious about promising to end profligacy and find the money for tax cuts. If he can’t, then Mr Howard had better find a new shadow chancellor, and John Redwood is the obvious man.
Mr Howard has made a sensible pledge to restore grammar schools and to find a place for every child qualified to have one. He should argue, too, for the private sector to come in to run failing hospitals, while of course leaving the services those hospitals provide free at the point of use. On crime, he is likely to find that the policy he operated when home secretary — ‘prison works’ — is still greatly favoured by electors. He would find that the permissive policy on drug use favoured by this government has dismayed many voters, who see the link between drugs and crime and feel that the government is fostering the problem. Ann Widdecombe was right about the need for a zero-tolerance policy on drugs, and Mr Howard should not be afraid to embrace the views of his former critic. If protecting the public from wrongdoers requires more prisons to be built, so be it.
He can match Labour’s rhetoric on illegal immigration by introducing hard policies to deal with the problem: strict border controls and a concerted effort to track down and deport those already here. Also, Mr Howard needs a credible family policy, to address the undeniable link between single-parent families and crime, underachievement and poverty. He should make no apology for using the system to favour marriage and to encourage those who father children to provide for them. The nationalisation of child care, begun under Gordon Brown and pursued with the long-term view of making the male redundant, should be reversed. The Notting Hill thesis — inherited from the world view of the Portillistas — is that the Tory party still has to strive to be ‘inclusive’ by going out of its way to be ‘nice’ to homosexuals, ethnic minorities and other small interest groups. This will distress many more Tory voters than it attracts, not because they are bigots but because they resent the recognition of special-interest groups by their party and resent, too, the pandering to what they believe to be the sectarian policies of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Mr Howard must instead concentrate on more mainstream issues.
It would also help the Tories if they were to rethink transport and environment policy. There is nothing wrong with road pricing, provided it is matched by cuts in other road taxes and that the money is put straight back into the upkeep of those roads. An integrated transport policy would restructure the railways to create a link between ownership of the track and ownership of franchises to run services, and would encourage freight back from the roads. In tandem with this, dedicated green-belt areas should be preserved, and the Tories should commit themselves to upholding and defending a concept of rural Britain. This would mean encouraging the development of brownfield land for residential and industrial uses, notably through a derelict land tax, and restricting building in the countryside. It would also mean recognising that there is a phenomenon of rural poverty as well as urban, and investing accordingly.
Finally, there is Europe. Mr Howard ought to be conscious that many Tories would be quite happy to leave the EU. Some can even make a perfectly rational case for doing so, based not merely on the metaphysical claims of sovereignty but also on the strict calculation of economic advantage. He would tear his party in two if he took this line. However, he must urgently make the gesture of pulling his MEPs out of the federalist European People’s Party, which is causing enormous offence to many Tories. He could also talk of the importance of renegotiating our relationship with Europe, and of making it clear that Britain will have to look to its own interests if that renegotiation is refused or impeded. That would buy off all but the most hardened Ukip supporters, and upset what is now but a small percentage of his own party. Mr Howard has said he won’t change his policy on Europe. He is signing his own death warrant if he doesn’t.
Mr Howard is smart enough to know that unless he starts promising to do things the voters want, they will go and vote for someone other than him. What ought to terrify him is that, as the Euro-elections proved, they now have rather more options to do that than they used to.
Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail.