Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Learn from the master or rubbish him? Tory rivals at odds over Blair
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The Independent Online

As if Tony Blair were not causing enough turbulence in his own party by pressing on with his final round of public service reforms, he is also making waves in the Conservative Party's leadership contest.

David Cameron's private remark that he sees himself as the "heir to Blair" has been seized on by his rival David Davis, who says the Tories should not "ape Blair".

At first glance, the Davis message is clever: many of the 250,000 Tory members who will elect the party's new leader in two weeks detest Mr Blair. It is perhaps even more potent because Blair shares have tumbled since Mr Cameron made his rather ill-advised remark in October, after the Prime Minister's Commons defeat over terrorism laws and his other battles with his own MPs.

Even some Cameron supporters admit there is "anxiety" among Tory members who cannot wait for the end of the Blair era and have no desire to be led by Tony Blair Mark 2.

By associating Mr Cameron with Mr Blair, Mr Davis supplements his strongest card: that he offers substance and policy but his younger rival is all spin and style.

At the same time, Mr Davis criticised Mr Cameron for preparing to "prop up a wounded Labour Prime Minister" after he suggested the Tories should support the Education Bill and other reforms if they broadly agree with them. With scores of Labour MPs having genuine doubts about the Schools White Paper, Tory support could easily make the difference between victory and defeat for Mr Blair.

Rescuing the Prime Minister is anathema to Mr Davis, a streetfighter whose instincts, honed in the whips' office, tell him to land a blow on the Government at every opportunity.

The shadow Home Secretary has been good at doing that: he played a big part in the resignations of David Blunkett and Beverly Hughes from the Home Office and Mr Blair's defeat on the Terrorism Bill. Mr Davis fears that, if the Tories back the Blair proposals, the two parties would be inseparable in the public eye and would discredit the case for reform.

And yet Mr Cameron believes Mr Davis's oppositionist instincts are an example of the old thinking the Tories need to leave behind so they can scale the mountain ahead. He believes that, if Mr Blair's reforms are on the right lines, the Tories should resist the temptation to give him a bloody nose in Parliament, even if doing so might help to push him out of No 10. His convincing riposte to Mr Davis is that politics should not be a "positioning exercise" in which the players behave like squabbling children in the playground.

He suspects the voters are sick and tired of such antics and that the Tories will win the voters' respect only if they behave as grown-ups.

This debate goes to the heart of the Tory battle. The two contenders have not left blood on the carpet and have managed to make the contest a positive force for their party. But they offer two very different approaches.

Revealingly, Mr Davis told party activists at one of their hustings meetings: "We have only lent Labour power; now we want it back."

Mr Cameron viewed this remark as an example of the very arrogance that, ironically, has helped to keep the Tories out of power. He replied: "I don't think it should work like that. It is the British public that either give power to a party or take power away from a party. Assuming that somehow the Conservatives have a natural right to govern is wrong. We have to earn that right."

The shadow Education Secretary insists that his "heir to Blair" pitch has been deliberately misconstrued by his rival. He has tried to reassure Tory members by attacking Mr Blair's "vanity", lack of attention to detail and "belligerent, partisan, macho style of politics".

He said: "The last thing Britain - or the Conservative Party - needs is more Blairism. I believe we need a new style of politics: thoughtful, measured and moderate." What Mr Cameron really meant to do by presenting himself as the Prime Minister's rightful heir was to recall that Mr Blair kept the best and necessary bits of Thatcherism but, crucially, added missing ingredients such as a social conscience and investment in public services.

Now, he believes, the Tories can complete the market-based reforms that Mr Blair wants but his party balks at. "Blair went beyond Thatcherism," one Cameron ally said. "In turn, the Conservative Party now needs to go further than Blair. It's common sense."

Why do the Tories hope that Mr Blair is on his way out? Of course, he is the enemy. Although they can't admit it, it is also because they grudgingly respect him and will be relieved when he is gone. Just as Labour would prefer to fight Mr Davis than Mr Cameron at the next general election, most Tories would probably rather face Gordon Brown rather than Mr Blair.

Sensible Tories know that they would be foolish not to keep the best bits of Blairism. Mr Cameron is right to regard public service investment as a positive good rather than a necessary evil. He believes the £38bn of tax cuts offered by Mr Davis would be seen by voters as a crude bribe and would prevent the Tories regaining the voters' trust on key services.

Rubbishing everything Mr Blair has done might score points at Westminster but cut little ice in the country. As Mr Cameron put it this week: "I wouldn't mind winning three elections in a row."

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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