ANOTHER VIEW : Tories must think or sink

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After our Black Thursday at the local polls, we either think or sink. Our problem is not a cocktail of short-term presentational lapses, disunity and tiredness, but of forgetting to be strategic. Past Tory success has been an object lesson in political dexterity as, like the best world-beating companies, we have managed to align style, structure and strategy.

Style persuades and is not to be sneered at. Someone new with a new style coming along is bound to be appealing for a bit. But even Mr Blair's political honeymoon will come to an end, as the commentating classes force themselves to examine what all this slick marketing based on Tory foundations means. Two years' hard interrogation face him as that message sinks in.

Structure is just as important as style, whether of the party, the Government, or of its policies. Setting aside the diffidence of New Labour to embrace the privatisation of the nuclear industry, or to be absolutely whole- hearted about boot-camps for young offenders, our policies seem to do them very nicely, thank you. That the Government's policies have been plagiarised shows how the Tories have left Labour in the foothills during the battle to reach the Everest of ideas over the past 16 years.

It is strategy, long-term and long-range, which is, however, most important. Strategy must dominate the Tory agenda now to make it possible to win a fifth term and to be the party in power on Millennium Night. We need to explain where we wish to be on the further horizons, and how we intend to give people a square deal and make their lives better. We must do more than concentrate on next week, the next party conference, or even the next election. We need to be able to at least hint at where we wish to be in, say, 2020.

Tories must show why the agenda that we began in 1979 to transfer ownership from state to people deserves to be completed. We then need to go on to open a new, second front, to parallel this enormously appealing political concept with another, the transfer of responsibility back to people. This is a huge idea.

Civic conservatism means everything from lower taxation - so that individuals and families can have more democratic space of their own again - right through to the opportunities to run more of our own community life untrammelled by public sector bureaucracy. Such new political frontiers are beyond the reach of Labour.

I sensed that Tories woke up after Black Thursday feeling that, like mountain guerrillas in the forest, we were suffering from a shrinking habitat. The reverse, flying in the face of the election results, is true, for most Conservative instincts calibrate closely with those of the British people, just as most Conservative policies have recently been adopted by Labour, which does not have an original idea in its head. Only from strategy will a sense of direction again flow and electoral success be a certainty.

The writer is MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. His book, 'Things To Come; the Tories in the 21st Century', is published today by Sinclair- Stevenson, £17.99.