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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
Ministry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
News
peopleHere's what Stephen Fry would say
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Richard Dawkins is known for his outspoken views
people
Life and Style
L’Auberge du pont de Collonges (AFP)
food + drinkFury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Arts and Entertainment
Bourne's New Adventures dance company worked with 27 young Londoners to devise a curtain-raiser staged before New Adventures' performance of Edward Scissorhands
theatreStar choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links