Valiant effort fails to conceal the lack of coherence

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For 70 minutes yesterday, John Major struggled to expound the case for today's Conservatism that would simultaneously be coherent, appealing to middle England (middle Scotland had to be thrown from the balloon if there was to be any hope of lift-off) and satisfying to the wavers of Union Jacks.

Coherence - internal consistency - was beyond attaining. Mr Major reminded his party of his pledge to work for a classless society. He then went on to repeat his pledge to abolish inheritance tax and made a new pledge to double the assisted places scheme.

Education, he insisted, was at the top of his agenda. He said nothing, however, about the real terms cuts in funding now being experienced in local education authorities. His insistence that the assisted places scheme has been "a magnificent success" and his brandishing of the new nursery voucher were a bizarre prelude to an assertion that "real choice will come when every state school offers the highest standards".

The Prime Minister's suggestion that state schools fail to put learning before "political correctness" was no less offensive to teachers for being expressed in one of Mr Portillo's favourite cliches.

It was simply disingenuous to say that GM schools get their money from the Government and the results are quite outstanding. Where their results are outstanding, it is not least because the money they get from the Government is more than the money other schools get. Labour, absolutely rightly, will end this inequity.

Mr Major's difficulties were painfully clear, too, as he talked about patriotism, the nation and the constitution. Wisely - and as something of a slap on Mr Portillo's wrist - he said he did not question Labour's patriotism. He started to make the case that if the United Kingdom was to disintegrate, it would have less influence internationally, but he then abandoned any attempt to make a reasoned case. Labour wanted constitutional change only for a party political purpose. Devolution was "gerrymandering". Regional assemblies in England would be "barmy". Our flesh was to creep at the thought of a tartan tax imposed by a Scottish parliament and all those extra bureaucrats and politicians.

A vague hint was dropped about the Scots gaining more say over their lives, though noting was said about the release of local government from capping which the conference had demanded in a notable rebellion against its managers.

The Government fails to acknowledge the real anxiety throughout the United Kingdom at the atrophying of our democracy in consequence of the wholesale centralisation of power in Whitehall.

There are many practical difficulties to be resolved by Labour in developing the details of its programme for constitutional reform. But at the end of this week it is more encouraging still that Labour is committed to the rehabilitation of our politics. The dismal proceedings at Blackpool show how vital that is.

Alan Howarth defected from the Tories to Labour at the weekend.