Election '97: Two brains put their heads together

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Indy Politics
A former minister, known around Westminster as "two brains", and a former adviser to David Owen were responsible for writing most of the Conservative Party manifesto for a fifth term of office.

David Willetts, 41, one of the brightest MPs in the Commons, who resigned as a Minister for dissembling had the task of assembling the policy initiatives across Whitehall and putting them together in a concise, readable form with Danny Finkelstein, the head of the Tory research department.

They worked with Norman Blackwell, head of the Prime Minister's Number Ten policy unit, to produce a manifesto which could show that the Tories had not run out of ideas.

One of the keys to the success of the document was the close working relationship between the three "policy wonks": Mr Willetts had worked with Mr Blackwell when he was in the Number Ten unit; Mr Blackwell had worked with Mr Finkelstein, since his appointment to replace Andrew Lansley at Conservative Central Office in 1995. Mr Finkelstein and Mr Willetts forged an alliance when Mr Finkelstein, a former SDP strategist, ran the Social Market Foundation.

Insiders said the task was made more difficult in 1992 as a result of the strained relations between Sarah Hogg, former head of the policy unit, now a Tory peer, and Mr Lansley, former head of the research department.

John Major set the tone for the manifesto by giving the policy unit the task of identifying the problems which the Tories needed to tackle in the late 1990s.

Mr Willetts, the former head of the Centre for Policy Studies, a vigorous right-wing think tank in the Thatcher years, had floated the idea of tax breaks for the family, which formed the main "plum" in the manifesto, in a policy studies centre document some years ago.

He was standing in the shadows at the side of the Tory party press conference with Mr Finkelstein, head of research, when the Prime Minister unveiled the document.

Mr Blackwell, who started the project over a year ago, drew heavily on the listening exercise with the Tory grass roots and a policy document called "Our Nation's Future". The message that came from the party supporters was of fears about the security of jobs and the welfare state, two issues which Labour were determined to exploit.

The need for action on the long- term care for the elderly was one of the issues which emerged from the consultation exercise. "There was a strong feeling that the chap down the road who pissed all his money away should not get the care for free while the the man who saved should have to pay," said another source.

The political Cabinet at Chequers in January - a sleepy affair after lunch in which some ministers nodded off listening to John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment - laid the ground for the commitments to be included in the manifesto, and those which would be dropped - privatisation of the London Underground was included after pressure by Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, but privatisation of the Post Office was abandoned.

Mr Willetts had been a Cabinet Office minister until a row with a select committee over allegedly interfering when he was a whip in an inquiry. When he was criticised in the committee's report, he resigned, and promptly was appointed chairman of the research department.