Redwood: the Jacobin Tory

Ideologue or pragmatist? Cold-eyed intellectual or populist? Nicholas Timmins assesses the past and the future of John Major's challenger

What would Redwoodism be like? Thatcherism with intellect is the short answer. But such a tag hides important differences that mark John Redwood out both from the former prime minister, whom he served to remarkable effect for three crucial years as head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, and from Michael Portillo, who offers, on the face of it, a riskier gamble with populism and nationalism combined with a much smaller role for the state.

Not that Redwood lacks belief in those things. But he is an English evolutionary, not a Spanish revolutionary, more of a Conservative than Michael Portillo in both senses of the word. And one more evidently prepared to trim in the interests of electoral popularity as he travels his chosen road.

The destination, none the less, is not in doubt. A much smaller state, much more private provision, family support and self-reliance, more Englishness within a strong union, no European federalism, no single currency.

The intellect that goes with the cold eyes and razor smile is obvious to all, producing Mathew Parris's brilliant evocation of him as "half- human, half-Vulcan, brother of the brilliant, cold-blooded Spock". But that ignores the careful, political calculation that makes him at times appear more cautious than Portillo about how far and how fast the Conservatives should move to the right - and it ignores the equally calculated, almost self-conscious, bursts of populism that have also begun to mark him out.

The intellect produced the First in history at Magdalen College, Oxford, the fellowship at All Souls and the City jobs which helped bring him to Margaret Thatcher's attention.

From 1983 to 1986, he headed her policy unit in what was arguably its most creative phase. Redwood transformed it from a collection of sometimes maverick individuals into a machine that paralleled Whitehall, shadowing each of its departments. It was that which in considerable measure made possible the Thatcherite reforms of the welfare state in social security, education, health and housing.

His own early contributions in the policy unit included "popular capitalism" - more home ownership, privatisations which delivered shares to employees not just financial institutions, and the thinking that helped create TESSAs and PEPS.

Using the pensions expertise he had acquired in the City, he played a key part with Norman Fowler in establishing the 1984 social security review that led to the right to opt out of SERPS, the state earnings related pension scheme - a move which halved its final cost and which Redwood later modestly decribed as "the most important welfare idea of the decade".

He would have liked to have gone further, but given the Government's uncaring image he judged "at that juncture" that only on pensions "could we do anything radical or important".

While at the policy unit, Redwood dreamt up with Oliver Letwin, the education specialist, an early version of the idea which became grant-maintained schools. And he encouraged David Willetts, the health and social security specialist, to undertake work on health which informed the NHS review when a financial crisis forced the Government into reforming it in 1988.

Redwood's own proposals for the NHS are known from a pamphlet he wrote at that time, just after he had left the policy unit. Britain's Biggest Enterprise damned the NHS as "a bureaucratic monster that cannot be tamed" and sought a cascade of changes that would turn it into an insurance-based service from which people could opt-out for private cover.

But if that was a long-term goal, he recognised - as always - the need for short-term gains. While at the policy unit he had urged on ministers a pledge that no one should wait more than a year for an NHS operation. He had his proposal costed and told Mrs Thatcher it would be "the best pounds 50m you ever spent". He failed to persuade her to buy it, but John Major's government introduced it in 1990.

The same signalling of long-term intent, but opportunistic delivery of short-term popularity, has influenced his health policy as Secretary of State for Wales. Virginia Bottomley's supporters remain livid at his 1993 assault over the "men in grey suits", just as the Health Secretary was battling Labour over the rising management costs of the new NHS. They were equally cross at his high-profile defence of well-loved local hospitals when Mrs Bottomley came close to going under in her drive to shut London teaching hospitals. But the same "men in grey suits" speech also contained a little noticed passage where he said there would always be a debate over what was publicly and privately provided for in health care, even though he had no wish to re-open that debate "today".

His belief in less welfare state reliance was prominent in the famous "St Mellons" speech, where he seized on John Major's ill-fated "Back-to- basics" campaign to attack single mothers who have a baby "with no apparent intention of even trying a marriage or a stable relationship with the father".

The same speech, however, set Redwood's commitment to retain an inclusive society - something fractionally closer to the old One Nation Toryism than Margaret Thatcher or Michael Portillo would be prepared to countenance - though he did make a sharp distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. The state should look after those who fall on hard times "through no fault of their own", he said, including among those, the disabled, the elderly and "those on very low incomes who are in difficult circumstances". The question was "where the boundaries are drawn between those who are eligible and those who are ineligible - and where the boundaries should be drawn between the encouragement of private provision and the provision of state support."

On Europe, his Euro-scepticism includes a desire to repatriate power back to the UK. If there is a distinction between his view and Portillo's it is not known. He was careful yesterday to say he was "not contemplating" withdrawal.

While he has proved a bureaucrat basher in Wales, assaulting quangos and devolving to local councils some of the former fiefdom of the Countryside Council for Wales, it is unclear quite how far and how fast he would take the small government argument.

His overt Englishness was displayed publicly in the cricket match he played on Sunday and also in his refusal to sign documents in Welsh on the grounds that he does not understand the language. But his England is not a nostalgic one of warm beers on sunny afternoons. Rather it approves of sharp lagers and cable and new technology - and the opportunity that affords for the "world currency" of the English language to conquer new markets.

His prescriptions for state spending have included "every incentive" for people to take jobs in order to encourage self-reliance; private second pensions for all, wherever possible; yet more home ownership as a long- term measure to cut the housing benefit bill. To date, he has proved as much a pragmatist as a dogmatist - opposing the poll tax, for example, and VAT on fuel. But then, to date, he hasn't been leader.

Thus, wherever the journey may end, Redwood was careful yesterday to sing his support for health and education spending and to say he didn't contemplate EU withdrawal alongside his promise not to abolish the pound. As his time in Wales has shown, he has a managerial interest in politics, not just a right-wing vision.

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