They are Achilles and Patroclus. They are David and Jonathan. They are Wallace and Gromit. Not since the emergence of the youthful Blair and Brown has there been a pair of politicians who have been so evidently close in ideology and outlook, and who have so captivated spectators by their general voter-friendliness. In making George Osborne shadow Chancellor, and appointing David Cameron to be shadow Education Secretary, Michael Howard has naturally exposed these two young men to the epileptic jealousy of their elders. Among the punditocracy, and among their colleagues on the Tory benches, there will now be plenty of people who are willing them to fail; and the very intensity of the resentment of this pair is of course a cause for hope, because it is an axiom of politics that people can only be bothered to muster jealousy and resentment of things that are good and new and likely to work.
This magazine, or rather its political editor Peter Oborne, coined the phrase ‘Notting Hill Tories’, and we therefore view their continued success with a vague proprietorial pride. It is supposed to be a mark against the pair, and their wide circle of allies, that they are young, or youngish, media-savvy, metropolitan, and broadly think it is time that the Tory party forgot some of the confrontational language of Thatcherism. In other words they are suspected of being ‘wet’, to use the old term. In fact, they are probably very far from being wet, at least on the central question of economic management. But in so far as being a Notting Hill Tory means being progressive, or unblinkered, or pragmatic, the badge will be of huge assistance to both men in doing what they have to do.
It was an almost unnoticed feature of the last election that the Tories’ proposals for education were the most radical and interesting for the last 50 years. In proposing to give parents vouchers which could be redeemed at any school, public or private, the Conservatives are at last offering to smash the educational apartheid of Butler’s 1944 Education Act. For too long there has been a chasm between the fee-paying and the maintained sector. Vouchers would bridge that gap; they would call into being new and diverse voucher-funded schools; and they would give choice to parents now stymied by the little tin gods of the local education authorities and their restrictive catchment areas.
That is a policy even more radical than Mrs Thatcher (that scrapper of grammar schools) dared to propose in her prime; and that is why it is hugely to the advantage of the Conservatives that it should be proposed with all the reasonableness and one-nation generosity of a Notting Hill Conservative. The same point can be made about the funding of higher education. The Tory policy is — or ought to be — to set the universities free, and to liberate them from the penny-pinching of the Treasury. The 89 institutions of higher education in this country are disgracefully underfunded; a brave, free-market approach is needed, not because it is ‘Thatcherite’ but because it is equitable — there is no reason that degree courses for the affluent should be funded entirely out of general taxation, much of it falling on those with low incomes — and also because it is the only way to ensure that our universities get enough money to compete with America, let alone China.
Again, the Notting Hill Tory believes in cutting tax and reducing the role of the state, not for any reason of Thatcherite dogma, but because it is by cutting tax rates that you generate the higher tax yields that you need to help the poorest and neediest. We are constantly told that George Osborne faces a David and Goliath-style struggle against one of the most powerful and dominant chancellors of modern times. On the contrary, it is clear that Brown wants to leave the Treasury, and supplant Tony Blair, before the baleful effects of his chancellorship become more glaring. We now have tax at a 25-year high as a share of national income, with public spending making up 59 per cent of the economy in Wales and the North East. Couples can earn £58,000 per year and still be eligible for tax credits, and this kind of fiscal complication has necessitated such a huge expansion of tax collectors and other inspectors and public-sector workers that we are turning into a kind of Sweden.
Gordon Brown is deeply vulnerable to someone who can make the moral case for lower taxation and a smaller and less intrusive state; not because that would enrich a small section of society, but because it would also reduce the burdens on the poor, and remove the bewildering tapers and disincentives that are gradually sapping the economy of energy and enterprise. And again, there is no reason that this agenda could not be advanced in a spirit of compassion rather than Thatcherite aggression. It is often said that the Tories have a hill to climb. Well, there is the hill of Cnotta, named in 1356 after some mysterious local nob, and they have climbed that one already. Forward from Notting Hill to the cloud-capped peak of the next election.