Oliver Letwin, the shadow spokesman on Home Office matters, claimed that he was only joking when he told the Police Federation yesterday that it would be a miracle if he became Home Secretary after the next election – implying that the Tories were destined to lose. Unfortunately, many a true word has been spoken in jest, but many voters will probably be just as impressed that Mr Letwin presented a rare example of a realistic politician who therefore deserves to be taken seriously whenever he speaks on his brief. In the Westminster village game of politics he may have made a gaffe, but in the real world he probably endears himself to the wider electorate with his disarming charm, courtesy and unusual honesty. Certainly his audience of policemen listened to him carefully and was impressed with his commitment to recruiting 40,000 additional officers.
So Iain Duncan Smith should not be unduly concerned at this reality check from one of the Tory party's best assets. Instead he should take Mr Letwin's advice that Conservatives should be "naive optimists". Ironically, the greater their realism, the more likely we are to listen to what Tories have to say. And, notwithstanding the minor blip of the Barry Legg affair, the events of the past fortnight, following the creditable local election results and the successful brainstorming awayday for Tory MPs, have already produced one minor miracle. Mr Duncan Smith has survived – and appears to be thriving – with little appetite from his detractors for a leadership challenge. As a result, his demeanour has subtly changed and a more confident personality has begun to emerge.
This new-found confidence has enabled him to get a respectful hearing for his proposals for "A fair deal for everyone". This may sound a bit like the old "square deal Surf" soap powder advert and, as political slogans go, IDS might yet find room for an improved soundbite before the next general election. Slogans can, however, be helpful in defining a political party's appeal, and no one can forget the success of "Labour isn't working", which seeped into the public consciousness before the 1979 general election. Similarly, the Tory advert "Labour's tax bombshell" played a part in staving off defeat for the Tories in 1992.
These successful slogans were negative campaigning devices based on the old knocking-copy approach. By contrast, IDS is attempting a more positive stance. Though hardly original, the "fair deal for everyone" tries to suggest a sense of justice and inclusiveness and, subliminally, hints at a broader appeal. It may be "naive optimism", but it tries to lift the spirits of disillusioned Labour voters who had thought that the Tories had nothing to offer.
The speech that IDS made this week, to launch the Tory strategy for winning the next election, was billed as a vision for the future, envisaging a country "in which prosperity and public services work in harness, side by side". The "vision thing" bogged down George Bush Snr. George Bush Jnr, however, has been more effective, and there is a hint of plagiarism from IDS with his talk of "a country where no one is held back and no one left behind". In Washington, on education department buildings, the phrase "nochildleftbehind.com" appears everywhere in huge lettering above the President's facsimile signature.
But IDS managed to get a hearing for this wider strategy by including an important announcement regarding tuition-fees policy. This is an area where a clear gap has opened up between the two main parties and promises rich pickings for the Tories. The cynics might say that this is a crude attempt to buy votes and exploit Labour unpopularity, but Tories have actually had a fairly good record on the commitment to "free" university education and have always considered student or parental contributions only in the context of maintenance costs.
Even in 1985, when Sir Keith Joseph was tempted to suggest a modest increase in parental contributions, there was the mother of all rows among Tory MPs. While the Tories eventually introduced a small loan portion to supplement maintenance awards, there was never any suggestion that tuition fees would be paid by students or parents. It has become clear in recent years that the Government's obsession with the target of getting 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds into universities is doing no favours to higher education and may well be destroying career opportunities for school leavers for whom debt and substandard courses lead, inevitably, to dropping out and disillusionment.
The Higher Education minister, Margaret Hodge has admitted that there are too many "Mickey Mouse" university courses, which is why the Conservatives are right to propose cutting back on such courses. There is scope for scrapping Labour's expansion and rigging of university admissions, which would provide savings to scrap fees. A survey by the NatWest shows that in 2002, 50 per cent of students considered not going to university because of tuition fees – up from 44 per cent in 2001 and 34 per cent in 2000. Damian Green, the shadow education spokesman, is already well advanced with a policy announcement, expected soon, that will provide opportunities for a fundamental expansion of vocational training.
This is far more likely to enable the Tories to increase their appeal in inner cities, where there is a desperate need to bring schools up to the standards of the best and where there is little prospect of many school leavers going into higher education.
IDS is also resuming his earlier effort, in a speech to his party's spring conference last year, to extend the Tory appeal to the "vulnerable". For some months, the impression has been given that the party had lost sight of this approach, but there are welcome signs that the new "fair deal" policies lay stress on commitments to public services, crime and drug initiatives. There is some way to go before the public will understand quite how the Tory approach to health will differ fundamentally from Labour's foundation hospitals. Both frontbenches support the idea of local control.
The Tories are convinced that Labour's proposals are no more than window dressing and will not lead to significant improvements because of ultimate Treasury control. IDS believes that "patient passports" will help people who have already been on a waiting list for an excessively long period to afford treatment at a hospital of their choice.
The importance of the fair-deal approach is that it may actually appeal to the voters in big cities. A recent analysis of the local election results shows that very few of the 600 Tory gains a fortnight ago were in the metropolitan areas. The study, by Tony Travers, the LSE's local government expert, underlines that, while in 1978 the Tories had 46 councillors in Manchester, they had none in 2003; in Sheffield they had 24 in 1978 and none in 2003; and in Liverpool, 24 in 1978 and none in 2003. All these cities each provided two Tory MPs in the 1979 election. But IDS may be on to something with his fair-deal pitch, which could play well in places where hostility to Labour is leading to huge falls in voter turnout. His task now is to find the candidates to ensure that the Tory case is heard in these Labour areas of greatest deprivation – and to remain naively optimistic.Reuse content