The Week in Politics: Choice? There is none when it comes to big ideas buzzwords

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The Independent Online

"Who are the radicals?" That is the question exercising the best minds in Downing Street and the Treasury. As one insider asked, should Tony Blair offer radical reforms of public services, or depict Michael Howard as a "head-banging radical" who wants to dismantle them? The question is an important one following the decision of both Mr Blair and Mr Howard this week to make "choice" in public services the battleground for the general election expected next May.

"Who are the radicals?" That is the question exercising the best minds in Downing Street and the Treasury. As one insider asked, should Tony Blair offer radical reforms of public services, or depict Michael Howard as a "head-banging radical" who wants to dismantle them? The question is an important one following the decision of both Mr Blair and Mr Howard this week to make "choice" in public services the battleground for the general election expected next May.

After pretty dismal European election results, the two leaders are desperate to shift the focus from Europe and Iraq to the issue they suspect will decide the election.

Whether the British people like it or not - ironically, they have no choice in the matter - they will be bombarded with proposals on "choice" by both Labour and the Tories. Indeed, there is some evidence that people do not really want to shop around for public services and, when asked by pollsters and focus groupies, they simply say they want a good local school or hospital.

Nevertheless, the die is cast. Mr Blair and Mr Howard have agreed choice is the "big idea" and will set out their respective stalls in keynote speeches next Wednesday. The issue will dominate the five-year plans for health, education and transport to be rolled out by the Government in the next few weeks. It will be at the heart of revised Tory proposals as Mr Howard repackages his party's ill-fated "passports" for pupils as a "right to choose", a deliberate echo of the "right to buy" for council tenants.

Mr Howard's extremely ambitious goal is to transform public services in the way the Thatcher government transformed home ownership.

At first glance, it seems as if Labour and the Tories are scrabbling over an overcrowded patch of the political centre ground with very similar approaches.

But there are important differences. Labour will try to make "payment" the key dividing line between the two parties. Ministers will trumpet the fact that, if patients opt for health treatment in the private sector, it will still be free, contrasting this with Tory proposals to charge up to 60 per cent of private costs.

The Tories have a problem. But they know it. They have ditched the label "passports" because people didn't buy it. The Tories' private polling revealed that people linked passports, not unreasonably, to moving "out" of something - in this case, NHS hospitals and state schools. In other words, it reinforced Labour's claims about "Tory privatisation and cuts".

Mr Howard will emphasise that the main point of his policy is for people to be treated in NHS hospitals for free, but would be subsidised by the state if if they decided to go private. He will rule out Tory subsidies for people who send their children to private schools, although payments equivalent to the cost of a state education will be made when pupils attend a new generation of independent schools the Tories hope to encourage.

Another crucial difference is that the Tories would use any spare cash to make a pre-election promise of tax cuts, warning that taxes will rise if Labour wins a third term. Labour's approach would be to plough any spare cash into services.

How should Labour react to Mr Howard's attempt to invade its territory? Mr Blair and Gordon Brown have different instincts. The Prime Minister is an unmistakable radical, a permanent revolutionary. The Chancellor is not against further reform but favours a more cautious approach, fighting the election by contrasting Labour's successful economic management of public services with the threat of "Tory cuts."

As yet, there is no blood on the Downing Street carpet. One participant in the debate says: "If Gordon were Prime Minister, it would be steady as we go. If Tony were there without Gordon, it would be revolution, revolution, revolution. Both would be wrong: you need a bit of both." Mr Brown has had his doubts about the role of market forces in state services, notably in the NHS. But he has moved towards Mr Blair, particularly in his advocation of the need for "personalised" services.

Tricky issues remain to be resolved when Labour drafts its election manifesto. The Brownites are not enamoured with the Blairites' plan for "co-payment" - wider charges for new services for those who can afford it, while they remain free for the poor. This is possibly a step too far for Labour MPs.

Mr Blair told Labour MPs last Monday that "quality and choice" were central to maintaining the coalition of working- and middle-class people that enabled Labour to win power in 1997. He is convinced the middle classes will walk away from the welfare state unless it meets their consumerist aspirations. To critics who doubt the need for another raft of reforms, his answer is: "Delivery and reform go together. People are starting to see the improvements and will therefore accept the need for more reform."

The Tories hope people will regard Mr Blair's new reforms as a sign of his failure to turn round public services. But they are "playing away" on this issue and it would be remarkable if they got a draw, let alone a win. For all Labour's problems, it is still well in front on public services.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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