Tories in Turmoil: True roots of 'back to basics' are unearthed: Donald Macintyre traces the genesis of the policy that has the Government in disarray

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The Independent Online
THE PRIME MINISTER shed some authoritative light yesterday on the origin of his 'back to basics' programme. It did not, he said in a BBC interview, 'suddenly appear'. Rather it 'resulted from a whole series of meetings I've had around the country over the period of the last two or three years, not just going out and talking to people, but listening to them as well.'

That fits. It was not the first time that John Major had nodded in a speech towards old certainties. It was in April 1993 that he promised - famously - that, 50 years from now, Britain would still be 'the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers'.

But that speech, while it reflected Mr Major's own background and enthusiasms, served a rather different purpose; to convince anti-Europeans in his party that the face of Britain would not change as a result of membership of the European Union. What the two speeches did have in common is that Nicholas True - a cricket lover like Mr Major - and deputy head of the Policy Unit, played a prominent part in the drafting of both.

Sarah Hogg, as head of the unit naturally played an important role in formulating the policy, and she was responsible for reinforcing the message in a key circular to Whitehall departments after the Tory conference. And, while she was in charge of a speechwriting team which also included Jonathan Hill, Mr Major's political secretary, and the playwright Sir Ronnie Millar, Mr True is credited with having done most work on the speech itself.

It was difficult yesterday to find anyone who could remember exactly who coined the phrase and when. But the ideas in it had a complex genesis. First, Mr Major had become convinced after Maastricht that the abstractions of the European treaty, and the apparent parliamentary obsession was switching off Tory activists; that, in other words, the party wanted to get back to basics.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he wanted to deliver a message that was distinctively his own; Baroness Thatcher was notoriously suspicious of the term 'society' and combined a personal Christian belief with a neo- Liberal view of political economy, which left her Cabinets little room for moralising. In an important article for the Independent on the eve of the conference, David Willetts, MP for Havant, argued that modern Conservatism required more than just economic liberalism to keep its drive. As he put it: 'We need a Conservative agenda that speaks as confidently about values as we have learnt to speak about the free market.' Mr Willetts was asked after the party conference to put in a paper about how the new theme could be put into practice in future.

Thirdly, although senior Tories yesterday played down the impact of this, the brutal murder of Jamie Bulger, the chord struck by Tony Blair's 'tough on crime, tough causes of crime' policy, and the earlier speeches John Smith had made about the moral basis of Labour helped to create a new demand for political parties to state their values.

Finally, with Lady Thatcher's memoirs looming, and after one of the worst parliamentary seasons a post-war Prime Minister had faced, Mr Major needed something which would unite the party. Balfour may have said he would rather consult his valet than the Conservative Party conference; but this was not an occasion when Mr Major could afford to ride roughshod over the conference. He was rewarded by the best reception he has had since coming to power. There were MPs who worried in private about any party slogan that started with the words 'back to . . .', but the delegates in Blackpool lapped it up.

However, that has also been the problem. Delegates to the party conference - particularly the older ones - are the same sort of people who form the backbone of constituencies such as Tim Yeo's in South Suffolk. And they took the message in a fairly fundamentalist way.

Mr Major is entitled to complain that his speech was not primarily about personal morality, family values - though it did talk about respect for the family - or even single mothers. It came after a series of speeches on those subjects at the conference, not before them. By raising the single mothers issue much earlier, John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales, had created a sort of competitive politicial market on the Tory right, in which Peter Lilley, Michael Howard and John Patten all emerged as players (though Mr Patten, a Roman Catholic and not a natural right winger, had, to be fair, made his views on sin and personal morality well known long beforehand). Since then, there has been an observable difference between the right and the left of the Cabinet in how that is interpreted.

In truth, neither the patrician 'social' wing of the Tory party, let alone the libertarian right, has been especially moralising in the past. Douglas Hurd may help Mr Major later this week when he makes a big speech on these issues. But Mr Major's most urgent need may be for ministers to agree what 'back to basics' means and then stick to the line in all those endless soundbite opportunities.