Simon Heffer believes that if the Tories are to have any hope of returning to power, they’ll have to stop tinkering and go for Labour’s jugular
In an impressive observation the other day, a Very Senior Tory Indeed said to me, ‘I don’t buy this argument that governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them. It’s a cop-out. We have to be better than that.’ With the spasm of activity in the last fortnight, the Conservative party appears to be acting on that view. First, we had Mr Howard making the moral case for low taxation. Now, we have Mr Letwin trying to outline how the moral position might, over six years or so, be reached. It has come not a moment too soon, because the overtaxed natives out there in Middle England are getting restless.
It has to be said, too, that after the prolonged honeymoon which Mr Howard enjoyed following his coronation last November, things were starting to look pretty rum. However intellectually unacceptable Lord Hutton’s report was, the Tory response to it was disastrous and left them, particularly Mr Howard, looking silly. The new Tory machine, praised so highly for its super-effectiveness, looked poor too. Although Mr Howard is to be congratulated on leaving behind the era of spin, the Tories’ media operation has looked inadequate ever since the new leader sacked his press chief, Nick Wood, to the astonishment of lobby correspondents, who universally respected him. Shadow ministers turned up in broadcasting studios on the afternoon the Hutton report appeared, to be asked during questioning why their leader had cancelled all his promised media appearances. Nobody had thought to impart this significant fact to most of them. Then the party that had supported the war on Iraq looked opportunist in seeking to humiliate the Prime Minister over his difficulties with the distinction between ballistic and battlefield weapons. ‘We were quite right to point out Blair’s ignorance,’ said a shadow minister. ‘But the tone in which we did so simply made us look hypocritical.’
Clearly, there was ground to be made up after such a passage, and with an election campaign perhaps only 14 months away there was no time to lose. Mr Howard’s ‘vision of the future’ speech on 9 February was an appropriate way to do it, and prepared the ground nicely for Mr Letwin. However, scarcely had the applause subsided than Mr Tim Yeo was briefing the Times about the extra money he was expecting for health care under a Tory government, raising questions about how the moral case for low taxation would be funded. Mr Howard’s Berlin speech on 12 February, in which he called for a more flexible EU, was an attempt to reassure the Right while not upsetting the likes of Kenneth Clarke. However, rather like his predecessor Mr Hague’s fatuous mantra about ‘being in Europe, but not run by Europe’, it simply won’t happen.
No one at or near the Tory high table sets much store by opinion polls unless they show a significant lead for the party. All the same, the Times poll last week showing them scraping along at 31 per cent was demoralising. It came, after all, at the end of a rocky period for the government, and with Labour’s internal divisions exposed. It came at a time when the aforementioned Middle England is gearing up for a revolt on the council tax, and when mortgage rates are being driven up by the Chancellor’s monetary incontinence. Chuck into the pot Labour’s failures on immigration, law and order and the running of the public services, and there should be scope for a fresh attack by the Tories on Labour every day; but that is not how the Tories seem to see it.
Senior shadow spokesmen are divided on both strategy and tactics. At a time when a Tebbitesque go-for-the-jugular figure is needed, none is apparent; and anyone who pitches for that post is warned about his behaviour. ‘There’s a great fear of not frightening the floating voters,’ says a shadow minister. All discourse must be conducted in the smooth, reasonable tones so perfected by Mr Letwin. This would be fine if the public themselves felt smooth and reasonable about how they are being governed, but they don’t. At the heart of the argument is why so many millions failed to vote at the last two elections, and how to get them to vote Conservative next time. The heirs of Mr Portillo, such as Mrs Theresa May, feel it was because the Tories were the ‘nasty’ party. (It may or may not be a coincidence that Mrs May is, by the common consent of her colleagues, the weakest link in the shadow Cabinet.) Others, notably a large proportion of ex-Tories who write to newspaper columnists like me, feel the party isn’t ‘nasty’ enough. They want it to identify Labour’s failings in direct language and to promise to put them right. So long as Mr Letwin talks of his differences with Gordon Brown being merely those of degree, many apostate Tories will see no need to put back their trust in their old party. These are the same people who despair of Mr Howard when he engages in the cynical tokenism of acknowledging homosexual partnerships, or when he wishes to be constructive with a Europe that could not be more philosophically opposed to him if it tried. The age of trying to be all things to all men, which did so much lasting harm to the Tories under John Major, ought to be over. There is a growing mood in the country for the Tories to launch a proper fight with a degenerate government, followed by the implementation of a distinct set of policies.
Many Tory MPs report a growth in membership since the events of last November. The new treasurer, the admirable Lord Hesketh, is having conspicuous success in opening the wallets of new and old donors alike. The faithful are certainly in better heart; but is the floating voter more likely to be engaged by the party being more centrist, or by it moving further away from Labour’s discredited modus operandi? Several senior shadow ministers are distressed by the party’s apparent inability to take on Labour about the government’s failures with the public services. There was dismay when it was revealed that the party planned to spend more on the NHS, when everyone knows that it is not the amount spent that is at issue but the value extracted from it. Mr Letwin’s plans to let the state grow less quickly than growth in the economy ignore the fact that it has already grown unsustainably in the last five years, and that much it is doing is pointless and wasteful.
Even before Sir Peter Gershon — appointed by the government to conduct a public-sector efficiency review — announced that 80,000 too many people were working in the Civil Service, harder-minded Tories were urging Mr Letwin and his colleagues to confront the real spending issue. It is that substantial savings will only be made once people are sacked. Sir Peter says 80,000; some Tories estimate the total is nearer 160,000 to 200,000, when all those working in local government are taken into account. More radical shadow ministers are urging the party to present the public with a distinction between front-line public-sector workers — doctors, nurses, teachers, police, ambulance staff, firefighters and carers for the disabled and elderly — on the one hand, and bureaucrats and those whose jobs exist because of the welter of regulation and political correctness developed by the government since 1997. A promise could then be made not to cut the jobs of any front-line workers, while slashing the payroll of those in what Sir Peter calls ‘the back office’. For good measure, the Tories ought to make two profound and non-negotiable philosophical observations: first, that it is not the function of the productive sector to be drained by the unproductive; and second, that the prime function of the public services is to serve the public and not those who work in them. ‘We’re too afraid to say that Labour has created jobs purely for its own people and not for any public good,’ says a senior MP. ‘It’s a scandal and we should say so.’
For now, though, the emphasis remains on being seen to be reasonable; the more so since the salutary experience of Hutton. Being reasonable will not, however, win elections. An angry public, feeling betrayed by Labour, is ready for someone to go for the kill on its behalf. Privately, shadow ministers believe the party ought to pick up 100 seats at an election next year, but make no pretence that this would be for any reason other than Labour’s own failings. Such a total would probably leave Labour short of a majority, and we would have a hung parliament, with a second election perhaps within months. At that stage the Tories would have to find a means of being even less like Labour, and offering radical solutions to problems in what would then be mostly urban electoral battlegrounds. This must consist of arguing how the public services have failed many in Labour’s traditional client groups, and that there might be new and more effective ways of delivering them. Opportunism and being ‘all things to all men’ have no place in such a contest, for the winner can only be someone who knows — and who can make the electorate know — what he is fighting for.
Simon Heffer is a columnist on the Daily Mail.