Losing sight of the true Tory crusade: 'Back to basics' always was about sex and morality. How else could the permissive society be tackled, asks Edward Leigh

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JOHN MAJOR has a sense of humour and he must laugh at the cartoons of him dressed as a Y-fronted superman. The cartoons and this week's events remind me of what George Bernard Shaw wrote in Man and Superman, that 'an Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable'.

As 'back to basics' enters its latest redefinition, Tory MPs are ruefully contemplating whether they are still in a moral party or just plain uncomfortable - probably the latter.

So were we wise to open up this debate, and what does it mean? The Government appears to be none the wiser as to whether morality encompasses sexual morality. In the time-honoured Establishment phrase, sex does not affect a man's ability to do his job, but our party workers are wise to detect the whiff of hypocrisy from politicians who parade their happy families on election addresses, only to proceed to destroy them at clandestine addresses.

To most of our female workers adultery is a betrayal and not just a silly indiscretion, as the Prime Minister said. I fear he will live to regret that phrase.

The interesting lessons from this episode do not, however, lie in scandals - those just tell us what we knew already, that Parliament is a cross-section of society which contains the usual crop of adulterers. The lesson is about how the Government conducts its business.

The Downing Street spin doctors would have us believe that 'back to basics' is a courageous and important policy and the Prime Minister is going to stick with it. Well, that won't be difficult if we now understand it to be a campaign to promote good manners, decency and standards in schools - matters not altogether unrelated to mother's apple pie.

But the truth is that 'back to basics' was always something much more substantial; it had to be. In October the Prime Minister's back was to the wall. The right wing, a majority in the parliamentary party, was outraged by retreats on Europe, taxation, defence and much else.

To survive the conference, Mr Major had to give carte blanche to his right-wing ministers to open an entirely new front against the state- funded permissive society. The Conservative Party would roll back the frontiers of the welfare state. The concept that people could become dependent on the state as a result of their actions had passed its sell-by date.

This policy, advanced by Messrs Portillo, Redwood, Howard and Lilley, was popular with the grassroots. It took pressure off the Prime Minister and it seemed to offer some hope of tackling the Government's number-one headache - the spiralling deficit - by reducing social security spending in the long term. And the briefings around Mr Major's conference speech made it clear this was about more than good standards in schools, it was an attack on the permissive society. What is the main component of the permissive society? Sexual freedom.

This was not just about money, there was an evangelical push from John Patten and John Gummer detailing the cost in human terms of broken families. Nor was this peripheral to the government agenda. A leaked cabinet document talked of recognising the value of a secure marriage and loving background in children's upbringing.

Make no mistake, this new direction was significant. Social security reform remains the one area that Thatcherism failed to reach. It remains the area of opportunity. So although it has almost become a cliche that the party has run out of ideas, the truth is very different. There is a wealth of radical Conservative ideas mouldering away in the Prime Minister's in-tray.

We are looking at nothing less than the entire restructuring of the welfare state through merging private and state provision. In education particularly, we are at the doorway of a whole new area of empowerment of ordinary people to do better for their children. In social security we are looking at a new socially-conscious concept of individuals repaying through work and contributions what is paid out by the state. This is not just ideological musing.

If nothing else, an ageing and ever more demanding population will result in so much pressure being put on the welfare state that it will lack the resources to provide the quality of welfare demanded.

But is this not all rather different from 'back to basics'? Not at all. Real progress cannot be achieved by mere exhortation. If we are to re-establish responsibility, decency and good manners then an increasing number of people have to be encouraged into self-reliance.

So October was encouraging and this week has been deeply depressing, because many of us hoped that at last, after a lull of some years, we were getting going again on something really worthwhile in the social sphere.

Instead, once again we haven't had the courage to stick with it. We are back to bobbing around in the no man's land of politics, where events can pick us off.

But there is also something else rather depressing going on. We now live in a harder, nastier, more selfish and more malcontent society. We have spent so much time convincing the electorate of the wealth-creating value and efficiency of capitalism that we have lost sight of what should be our true moral crusade. Did not Harold Wilson say way back in 1962 that the Labour Party is nothing if it is not a moral crusade? Well, the Conservative Party is nothing if it is not a moral crusade, not just sexually moral, but moral in our deepest selves.

In the decline of organised religion, its inspiration and its discipline and its hope, we see a dangerous vacuum opening up at the heart of society. The essence of leadership is to articulate this fear and overcome it.

Meanwhile all is muddle and confusion. We can only echo Macaulay's 'Lays of Ancient Rome':

Was none who would be foremost

To lead such dire attack.

But those behind cried Forward

And those before cried Back.

The writer is MP for Gainsborough and Horncastle, and was a minister at the Department of Trade and Industry from 1990 to 1993.

Andrew Marr is unwell.