Andy McSmith: Believe it or not, Howard's credo is more than a statement of the obvious

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The Independent Online

The satirists will have some fun with the credo that Conservative leader, Michael Howard, published last week, especially with his comic declaration "that people should be big". Is this a late endorsement of Michelle McManus's victory in Pop Idol, or just his way of getting back at little Ann Widdecombe?

Any politician's credo is sure to include passages that invite parody, and others which belong in the "motherhood and apple pie" collection of declarations that are so obvious that they are scarcely worth saying. From Howard's list of 16 "dos and don'ts" we learn, for example, that the Conservative leader, like John D Rockefeller Jnr, rates health, wealth and happiness as good things, whereas injustice makes him cross. Well, knock me down. His credo includes other statements which are not so blindingly obvious as they may first appear. In the middle of a list of 13 things which Howard believes, there pop up three declarations of non-belief, each one more contentious than the one that preceded it.

Howard says he does not believe that "one person's poverty is caused by another's wealth". Actually, frequently, it is. To take a crude example, I hope that Howard is not robbed of his wallet on his way home tonight, but should this happen to him, he will notice how the mugger's acquisition of wealth is precisely the cause of his own sudden poverty. There are bigger and more complex examples of powerful companies or landowners ruining the livelihoods of others in pursuit of self-enrichment, or of agricultural subsidies in rich countries which have made domestic producers wealthier at the same time as they have ruined Third World farmers.

However, Howard will argue that these are examples of faults in the capitalist system which can be mended, and that they are covered in other parts of his credo, in which he speaks of providing "equality of opportunity", for example. The point of this statement of non-belief is to declare his support for self-enrichment through enterprise and hard work, and his opposition to the politics of envy.

The next thing he professes not to believe is that "one person's ignorance is caused by another's knowledge and education". Asked what this meant, on the Today programme yesterday, Howard said: "We should not be worried by the fact that as people move towards higher standards, this will not happen at the same pace everywhere and for everyone." In plainer language, what he is saying is that he believes in public schools, and grammar schools, to make sure that some children enjoy higher standards until that far off day when the average comprehensive has been raised to the level of Eton College, where his son was educated.

Howard goes on to say that he does not believe that "one person's sickness is made worse by another's health." This is not the meaningless statement it appears to be, but an example of a politician using code language to defend a bad policy. With their "patients' passport" scheme, the Conservatives are proposing state subsidies for patients who opt for private health care, which - apart from the damaging impact this could have on the NHS - is extremely risky because experience shows that any association of the Tories with private health care is a potential vote loser. But what Howard will try to tell Mr and Mrs Floating Voter is that they need not fear for the future of the NHS or state education, which the Conservatives will protect just as Labour would, but if they want to spend some of their cash on private provision, they have the Tories on their side.

Leaving aside its free-market ideology, this credo ought to serve as a warning to the Labour Party that it is now facing a dangerous opponent. The idea of putting a credo out in this form, in place of the usual unreadable and unread New Year's message, was a clever piece of presentation. It shows that the Conservatives, too, know how to use good spin doctors.

When Howard emerged as leader-elect of the Conservative Party two months ago, the tendency among Labour MPs was to assume that he would be as easy a target as his two predecessors. Cabinet ministers, with their long memories, saw him as a failed relic of the old Tory government. Tony Blair's main line of attack was to remind us constantly that Howard was the minister who introduced the poll tax. The reaction to his credo from the Labour Party chairman, Ian McCartney, was in the same vein. He likened Howard to Margaret Thatcher, as a man "stuck in a failed Tory past".

This is reminiscent of a tactical blunder committed by the Conservatives in the late 1990s. Having won a sustained battle against trade union militancy, they assumed that their best defence against Labour was to keep serving up those old images of the miners' strike and the "winter of discontent" when these events were more than a decade old. It is now more than 12 years since Margaret Thatcher was ousted and the poll tax was abolished. Political memories are not long enough to keep these issues alive even in the minds of those of us who were old enough to follow the news back then.

My impression is that the voters do not see a failed, old has-been in Michael Howard. That was the view of him six years ago. Now he is an interesting example of a man old enough to be a grandfather making an unexpected comeback. With his immigrant background and his memories of the Beatles era, Howard has a story to tell that is in some ways more interesting than Tony Blair's. This does not make him invulnerable, but it means that if Labour is wise, it will stop attacking him for what he used to be, many years ago, and will instead concentrate on what he says now.

The central argument of Howard's credo is that "people are most likely to be happy when they are masters of their own lives, when they are not nannied or over-governed". It is a powerful argument, simpler to state and simpler to understand than last week's attempt by the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, to put the case in defence of the "nanny state". She used the particular example of the ban on tobacco advertising. The Labour Party will have to do more than that. They will have to go back to restating the basic case for allowing the state to be the main provider of health and education, an argument so old it began in the decade when Michael Howard was born.

Andy McSmith is political editor. Steve Richards is away