Hurd warns Tories on swing to right

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The Independent Online

Political Editor

A powerful "one-nation" call on the Tory party not to "slash blindly at public services" in order to widen the gap between itself and Labour was launched yesterday by Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary.

Mr Hurd came strongly to the defence of Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, against right-wing critics of his Budget in a speech which also went a long way to challenging the growing assumption among some senior Tories that the state needs to be dramatically "shrunk" to sustain competitiveness.

Mr Hurd acknowledged the desirability of cutting the "too high" rates of taxation. But he added in a speech in Bloxham, Oxfordshire, that only "among the unreal fevers of Westminster would it seem sensible medicine to sack more teachers in the cause of cutting taxes even more deeply."

He declared: "A government which slashed blindly at public services, pleading some abstract moral imperative or invoking a political need to put clear water between itself and its opponents, will not regain sympathy but forfeit it."

Mr Hurd used all his authority as one of the senior members of the Tory establishment to refute right-wing backbenchers like David Evans, vice- chairman of the 1922 Committee, who have claimed that Mr Clarke showed "no nose" for politics by failing to cut taxes and spending more deeply in last month's Budget.

But his speech will also be read as an important contribution to the continuing debate among Tory strategists over whether the party should swing to the right in order to beat off the challenge from a modernised Labour Party. Giving what amounts to firm advice that it should not, the former Foreign Secretary said that Britain needs to strike a "sensible balance" between "reasonable taxation" and "reasonable public services." He warned the Tories would not win the next election if "we rush into unreality".

Mr Hurd strongly criticised Labour for "proclaiming in the City of London" that they have forsaken high taxation while in "every constituency" Labour spokesmen imply a commitment to more spending on public services. Mr Hurd said that Hugh Gaitskell lost the 1959 election because British voters saw through the same "contradiction".

But he also pointed out that the Citizen's Charter has actually increased public expectations of higher public services. He added: "If we can achieve growth in the economy at around 3 per cent a year and if we can keep the real increase in welfare expenditure at around 1 per cent then it is possible to sustain the essential services and still reduce taxation."

Mr Hurd said that "not even [Fidel] Castro" believes any more in the nostrum that "nationalisation, subsidies and high taxation" are the remedies for "inadequate" economic performance.