A man who would face both ways

Stephen Dorrell's dreams of leadership are apparent in his careful musings. But is he just all talk, asks Nicholas Timmins
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The Independent Online
Stephen Dorrell has yet to become one of the cartoonists' favourites. If he ever does, it will doubtless be the bags under his eyes on which they will focus. Right now, he has every right to have them.

He has just completed his first year as Secretary of State for Health. But in that time, aside from running one of the more demanding departments of state, Mr Dorrell has been working hard at his second job - positioning himself for the Tory Party leadership battle to come if the Conservatives go down at the general election.

There have been some remarkable speeches. The man once seen as Peter Walker's heir and so wringing wet that even Julian Critchley once described him as "excessively moderate" has been sounding increasingly Euro-sceptic and a harder man on social policy than many had believed him to be. Education and health, he has said, should remain universal services. But the rest of the welfare state he has airily dismissed as "primarily designed to offer a safety net to those who are unable to provide for themselves." In the cause of this careful positioning, he has even attempted to reclaim Margaret Thatcher as a One Nation Tory.

He cannot be serious. How can he see Margaret Thatcher as a One Nation Tory on the NHS when it is on record that she didn't believe in it as a universalist service? Marvellous for the "great accidents" and "terrible diseases" - as she herself once put it - and necessary for the poor. But, according to Kenneth Clarke, her health secretary at the time, she believed for the rest that people "should take responsibility for their own lives and insure for these things".

Dorrell equivocates. "That may or may not be right," he says. The point is that that is not what happened. As Secretary of State for Education, Mrs Thatcher delivered a universalist education service. And as prime minister, she continued to provide a universalist NHS. "What you have to judge people by," Dorrell avers, "is not the ideas they muse over but the conclusions they come to in ordered decision-making." This is an important sentence.

His own musings, these days, sound a fair way from what is usually seen as traditional One-Nation Toryism. To the right of Kenneth Clarke, for example, who has said the basic pension is a key part of the welfare state and that the de-layered and downsized managers of Middle England want not just good health and education but a modernised welfare system that will help them retrain and find new employment. If Dorrell is saying all the rest of the welfare state is merely a safety net, surely that implies reducing the remainder to means tests? He unhesitatingly agrees. "That's not the implication," he says, "it's the assertion."

So he would means-test the basic state pension and child benefit? Caution enters here. The growth of private pensions means relatively few households rely only on the basic state pension. In that sense, therefore, it already is a safety net, although "we continue with the existing retirement pensions commitment".

What about child benefit?Would he favour means-testing it? He doesn't answer the question. Instead, he carefully repeats that the existing commitment "continues to be the commitment we are delivering".

So how about spending? It should come down, Dorrell says. But he won't indulge in the targets which the right has been bandying about. "I do think we can get it down," he says, "but I've never believed that setting a target as a new nirvana makes sense." Indeed, he argues: "It may be that the time will come when we conclude we have cut it far enough. But it doesn't seem to me that is in prospect yet."

The difference between musings and actions seems to come in here. Dorrell may be positioning himself better with the right in order to be a possible standard-bearer for the left - perhaps a 45-year-old Dorrell against a 44-year-old Portillo if John Major loses next May.

To be a contender, Dorrell needs another good year, plus the public profile he has so far lacked but is beginning to acquire - both on his own account and at John Major's instigation. He is steadily becoming a Cabinet front man on issues well outside his departmental brief: last week, for example, on the constitution. On television, his open, reasoned, intellectual logic provides a friendlier Tory face to offset Brian Mawhinney's Rottweiler tendencies.

At National Heritage, his first Cabinet post, he did not shine, never quite recovering from appearing miffed, initially, at not getting something more heavyweight. At health, he's become more of a star.

He has defused some of the heat around the NHS reforms by becoming a "bureau-sceptic" - cutting away at the management costs the reforms have created. He has neatly finessed a potentially damaging confrontation with GPs into what may just become a constructive dialogue. The distinct flush of manager and civil servant in him - traits unusual in politicians - have focused on a few critical NHS issues: emergency cover, intensive- care beds and mental health.

There have been blips. Redrawing the sensible drinking guidelines into what critics dubbed "a boozer's charter" was not the cleverest thing to do in the middle of the Government's anti-drink-driving campaign at Christmas. And there has been BSE. But predictions at the time that mad cow disease would make or break him have proved wide of the mark. It is Douglas Hogg, not Dorrell, who has been wounded by that flak.

The big outstanding question is whether in last year's spending round he won enough money for the NHS in this pre-election year. It is, he accepts, not only tight, but "tighter than usual". But new services are still being developed and he doesn't anticipate a major expansion in waiting times. No, he says, he hasn't thought of going back for more money - and he doesn't intend to.

"I don't believe that way of managing anything makes sense. Of course it is true in every organisation in every walk of life at any time in history that if you had a bit more you could do a bit more. But the job of those charged with managing something for a given period is to use the resources at their disposal to deliver the best service they can."

It would reflect badly on the NHS, he says, if it had to go back for more cash. And badly on him? "Yes. It would mean we have made a mistake, and I don't believe that is true." And on that judgement, as much as any other, may ride Dorrell's chances of entering the frame.