Peter Oborne

Howard’s Conservative party has made astonishing progress in a very short time

Howard’s Conservative party has made astonishing progress in a very short time

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Just before the 1966 World Cup the England manager Sir Alf Ramsey remarked that his talented midfielder Martin Peters was ‘ten years ahead of his time’. Peters himself was displeased by the observation, but Ramsey was in reality being flattering. He meant that his player was not truly at ease among the clodhopping defenders and midfield ‘hard men’ who set the tone in the 1960s. Peters’s fluid, complex, visionary style anticipated an era that had not yet arrived.

Very much the same can be said of Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor. To the more primitive type of Tory back-bencher, Letwin is the object of contempt. Letwin refuses to use soundbites, the mind-numbing currency of contemporary debate, though attentive readers of his thoughtful and well-written speeches will find witticisms and the occasional epigram. The stupider type of MP, wedded to the conventions of the very recent past, takes this as an affront. They are angered too by Letwin’s outrageous refusal to resort to ignorant abuse and his consistent attribution of the highest motives even to his political opponents. Worst of all is Letwin’s use of long words and serious argument, and utter refusal to descend into cheap populism.

Instead of attending to the grim rituals which pass for modern political activity, Letwin has taken a step back from the contemporary political scene. Though shadow chancellor for barely six months, he has already created a coherent, well-researched and fundamentally Tory critique of Gordon Brown’s management of national finances.

Because of the way that New Labour is constructed, above all Tony Blair’s curious decision to allow domestic policy to be controlled from the Treasury, Letwin has been obliged to undertake a wider analysis of New Labour in government than perhaps he originally envisaged. The results of Letwin’s work have started to emerge over the past few weeks, and they can only be described as dazzling. It is hard to overstate the importance of what he has done: he has at last provided the tools for the long-awaited conservative intellectual fightback.

Letwin’s arguments are partly set out in his speech on ‘Gordon Brown’s Big Government’ published on Tuesday. He demonstrates, with felicitous use of examples drawn mainly from government reports, how Gordon Brown’s obsession with central control has doomed New Labour’s well-intentioned attempts to reform public services. The Chancellor’s insistence on micro-managing every area of public life through Whitehall-imposed targets, endless bothersome initiatives, grants-in-aid, public service agreements, etc., is squeezing the life out of our hospitals and schools.

Less and less of the investment intended for the national public services actually reaches its destination. Instead it is captured halfway by the bureaucrats and regulators setting and monitoring the targets, interpreting the data and managing the schemes. Letwin demonstrates, for example, that of 88,000 new posts created in education by New Labour, just 14,000 are teachers and teachers’ assistants. Meanwhile the task of the teachers themselves is made far more wearisome and difficult by the New Labour army of bureaucrats. Letwin claims that the new regulations just issued by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority mean that a teacher in charge of 30 five-year-olds ‘is expected to write a report on their pupils’ aptitudes and achievements which exceeds the length of Paradise Lost’.

At the heart of Letwin’s argument is the proposition that Gordon Brown’s Big Government has created an historic opportunity for the Conservatives. Ten years ago New Labour in opposition put forward the strikingly plausible proposition that it was at once the party of social justice and economic efficiency. Today Oliver Letwin is steadily constructing a Tory party that can realistically claim to have reconciled the two apparently contradictory objectives of a smaller state, as well as improved public services. Hence the proposals, unveiled by shadow spokesmen Andrew Lansley and Tim Collins over the past two weeks, to give massive new freedoms to hospitals and schools, liberating them from the stranglehold of the bureaucrats.

Michael Howard’s Conservative party has made astonishing progress in a very short space of time. It has already constructed a coherent and serious Tory vision of how a modern economy should be run, while showing that New Labour over the last seven years has adopted the wrong model for health and education, with wretched consequences for pupils and patients. There is no evidence at all that this vision has communicated itself to the electorate at large — last week’s Populus poll in the Times, showing the Conservative party languishing at 29 per cent, four points behind the government, was especially discouraging. But Howard has achieved something that is almost as important, and much more interesting and attractive. For the first time in 20 years the Conservative party is the dominant source of ideas on the national stage.

Look at the recent decisions by the Labour government — the decision to perform a U-turn on the constitutional referendum, the move towards ‘choice’ in public services, the Gershon report on government waste. All of these are simple mimicry of policies already worked out and articulated by the Conservative party. No opposition in living memory has had such success in setting the agenda for government at Westminster.

There remain those who insist that Tony Blair is simply being very clever indeed in appropriating the Conservative agenda and opportunistically passing it off as his own. Nor can it be denied that shooting the Tory fox on the referendum caused Michael Howard real problems during last month’s European elections, opening the way for the Ukip surge. But to accept these arguments is to enter too readily into the New Labour mindset, which has always been dominated by power worship, short-term strategic considerations, and an obsession with newspaper headlines.

The Tory strategy under Michael Howard is much more profound. It is not simply that he has created a new, distinctly Tory and intellectually rigorous set of policies. He has also drawn Tony Blair into perilous territory. When New Labour talk of choice, they sound uneasy, defensive and half-hearted.

And there is one final huge gain. The further Tony Blair pushes New Labour towards choice, the further he moves away from his political base. This weekend, as Gordon Brown prepares to unveil his spending plans, the yawning chasm between the Prime Minister and his party was looking menacing yet again. Though the polls do not show it, things have rarely looked so good for Michael Howard’s Conservatives.