The Week in Politics: Howard may have lost the chance to rebrand

When Michael Howard became Tory leader last November, his advisers compiled a list of the voters' concerns. They drew an important dividing line between "rants" over Europe, immigration, asylum and crime and "moans" about health, education and the economy.

The "rants" were a passing protest, a way for people to get things off their chest, as many Conservatives did by voting for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in last month's European elections. The "moans" were the deeper concerns that will determine how people will vote at the general election.

The conclusions of Mr Howard's team explain why the Tories have gone on to the offensive over health and education in the past two weeks, unveiling a long list of goodies such as an end to hospital waiting lists, much greater choice of schools and an extra £34bn for health and £15bn for education.

It all looked good at first. But, watching Mr Howard unveiling his education plans on Tuesday, I couldn't help thinking that people might regard it as too good to be true. Tony Blair's "trust" ratings may have fallen through the floor but sensible Tories know that does not produce an automatic bonus for them because people distrust politicians generally.

"Did we get a draw on health and education?" one Shadow Cabinet minister asked me excitedly. It was a revealing question. I replied that they had lost 3-2, but that wasn't bad since they had started the game 3-0 down. Coincidentally, football analogies were also the order of the day in Downing Street. Mr Blair's aides agreed that the Tories were "playing away" on Labour's natural ground. "They are trying to get a draw on public services so that they can move on to their issues, Europe, immigration and asylum," one said.

Team Howard denies that, insisting the party will not repeat William Hague's mistake at the 2001 general election. He was given a similar message by Tory officials, who urged him to campaign on public services, but opted to fight on Europe. The rest is history.

But Mr Howard banging on about public services until the election expected next May does not guarantee he will be successful. An important piece of repositioning has come in the past two weeks. After an intense internal debate, the Tories decided to cool their politically dangerous flirtation with the private sector, knowing it provides ammunition for Labour to say the Tories would privatise public services.

So the health "passport" has been tweaked, to put the emphasis on patients having treatment at any NHS hospital. And the Tories finally made clear that parents could not put their school "vouchers" towards the cost of an education at private schools charging fees of more than £5,500 a year, the average of cost of a state education.

The changes are designed to reassure voters that the Tories are committed to public services, and neutralise Labour's well-worn attacks.

But I suspect that Mr Howard has not gone far enough. The most headline-grabbing aspect of his health policy remains that a Tory government would pay up to 50 per cent of the cost if patients opt for private treatment. The move is well-intentioned.

The Tories' hearts tell them that 300,000 people each year without private health insurance are paying for one-off treatment and deserve help.

But the Tories' heads should have told them otherwise because their policy reinforces Labour's "privatisation" charge. And the Tories may be behind the curve: there is evidence that people who were "paying as they go" for private treatment are returning to a slowly but surely improving NHS, and that private health firms are cutting their prices to compete with it.

Similarly, the schools voucher is designed to foster the creation of a new wave of private schools with low fees. However laudable the aim, it may send the same signal to the voters, allowing Labour to make the same dividing line as on health: Labour wants to keep people in the state system, while the Tories want them to opt out. That will suit Mr Blair nicely.

Labour ministers are under no illusions that people still need a lot of convincing that public services have improved. But there was some cautious optimism around the cabinet table on Thursday when Michael Barber, head of Mr Blair's Delivery Unit, presented his latest progress report. He claimed a "widespread and significant" improvement in services was starting to filter through to the public, and to close the gap between people's "national pessimism" about the state of services generally and their more optimistic personal experience. "It is growing, if grudging" one Blair aide told me.

Some ministers left Thursday's meeting hoping that the Government just might have reached a turning point. If voters really do believe things are getting better, it will make it much easier for Labour to sell its new round of reforms, which will not then look like an admission of seven years of failure.

To try to keep the spotlight on public services, the Cabinet agreed to issue another raft of "five-year plans" this autumn, on welfare, trade and industry and the under-fives. Labour, rather than the Tories, is making the political weather. The grumbles of discontent in the Conservative Party at Mr Howard's failure to make a breakthrough are getting louder. In fine-tuning the Tories' approach to public services, he may have missed an opportunity to rebrand the party.

It seems that the Tories just cannot help flirting with the private sector. They should have ended the relationship. When the election comes, it may prove a fatal attraction.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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