Why is Mr Howard getting such an easy ride?

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The Independent Online

For 50 years after the last war, there were numerous institutions which, though they might be challenged, no one could be confident of defeating. They included the Roman Catholic church, the Brigade of Guards, the National Union of Mineworkers, the Australian cricket team, the Welsh rugby side and the Conservative Party. One by one, they have lost their former pre-eminence. Even the Church of Rome is full of hesitation and doubt. How are the mighty fallen! Only the Australians are left. And the most recent casualties are the Conservatives.

Or so one might have concluded from reading the papers and watching television at the beginning of last week. The Conservatives, we were confidently informed, were finished, done for. Mr Michael Howard, so far from becoming Prime Minister, might not even be Leader of the Opposition in the new Parliament, whether because he had been dislodged by his own party or - even more distressingly - because he had been supplanted in that position by Mr Charles Kennedy.

There was a journalistic reason for this gloomy prognosis in addition to the wind and the rain by the seaside, which always tend to make my colleagues tetchy. This was the Hartlepool by-election. On Friday and succeeding days the papers had been full of Mr Tony Blair and his most recent adventures. They did not have space to get round to the by-election till Monday. Then, gradually, the mood lightened. By the end of the week, the Tories were being allowed to get away with aggravated assault on the English language.

For example, "accountability" was the great rallying cry of Mr Tony Benn, who was himself a left-leaning liberal, and of his less innocent supporters in 1979-81 and, indeed, before then. It was a response to what was seen as the failures - in the Labour argot of the period, the betrayals - of the Callaghan government and of the previous administrations of Harold Wilson. Accountability was to be achieved through a strengthening and an extension of what was already part of Labour's structure.

This was the notion of representative democracy, whereby delegates to the party conference and other assemblies were "mandated" to vote in a certain way irrespective of what had gone on in the debate beforehand. This was the reverse of what Conservatives still believe. The people at Bournemouth last week take a pride in calling themselves representatives, not delegates. Oddly, perhaps, this makes them opposed to representative democracy.

Under Old Labour theory, which reached its apogee in 1981, MPs control ministers, including the Prime Minister. But party members control the MPs. They exercise their power through mandatory reselection. It is government by party, the rule of the elect. It is still government by party, except that, now, word comes down from our beloved leader and the party does as it is told. This is the reverse of what Ms Patricia Hewitt and various other pillars of Mr Blair's administration once expounded with passion.

Mr Howard, though a clever man in his way, has never shown much interest in political theory. In this he resembles the Prime Minister. I doubt whether he has the faintest idea of what accountability means. It is merely part of the week's rhetoric, designed to serve an immediate political purpose and then to be forgotten.

On the whole, my colleagues have been remarkably kind to the Conservative leader. Hartlepool happened the week before last. And they tend to assess the impression which they guess a politician is making rather than the sense of what he or she is saying and its meaning.

Thus it makes no sense for Mr Howard to promise the decentralisation of hospitals and at the same time to guarantee their cleanliness. For what happens when a hospital chooses not exactly to be dirty but, rather, to spend the money available on some piece of superior equipment rather than on improved cleaning services? In fact, as we know (and as Mr Steve Richards pointed out in The Independent last week), dirty hospitals came in with Margaret Thatcher and her policy of forcing them to contract out their cleaning services. Those who visited hospitals in the 1980s noticed the dirt that was not there before.

Likewise, Mr Howard was given an easy time on Europe: I mean, by the commentators rather than by the representatives, though they gave him an easy time as well. There were several reasons for this indulgence by the audience.

One was that Europe has now replaced law and order and, later, Rhodesia, as the subject on which the Tories traditionally have a row, which this year they were anxious to avoid. Another reason was that Mr Paul Sykes had smartly removed the chair from under Mr Robert Kilroy-Silk and UKIP by withdrawing funds from the party, precisely because Mr Kilroy-Silk was threatening to put up candidates against every single Conservative. All Mr Howard had to do was to rely on the tried, tested and mendacious formulae - social chapter, common fisheries policy, renegotiation and all the rest of it - when he knows perfectly well that a Conservative government has about as much chance of renegotiating the relevant treaties as he has of playing for his favourite football club, Liverpool.

And yet, perhaps the Tories piped down on Europe not just for electoral reasons, to avoid a row, but because they wanted to talk about something else: taxation. Here Mr Oliver Letwin proved a grievous disappointment. Like Mr Howard, he is a clever fellow. Indeed, one could say that he had been educated out of his wits. But he lacks the fiscal ingenuity which Geoffrey Howe and, to an even greater extent, Nigel Lawson both possessed. For instance, it would be possible to solve the inheritance tax problem and, incidentally, to embarrass Mr Gordon Brown (even if Mr Brown is a shameless character) by taxing individual bequests rather than the whole of the deceased's estate.

Again: Pay As You Earn has existed only since 1944. It was invented by a civil servant, Stanley Paul Chambers, who went on to become head of ICI. Before then, paying income tax was a sign of membership of the middle classes. No longer. Even so, why should people generally not be allowed to pay their taxes as they used to and as I do still, under Schedule D?

Or again: why tax income at all? Why not tax expenditure instead, as the socialist economist Nicholas Kaldor once proposed? This would not necessarily entail a wholly indirect and therefore regressive system of taxation. But it would mean that savings went untaxed.

Of fresh thinking of this kind there was no sign whatever at Bournemouth. No doubt it is too late now. One can only wonder that Mr Howard enjoyed such a good press in the end.

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