It's not enough to be right - you have to be political

There is a body of opinion that believes the published Tory proposals for tax cuts are actually quite modest

Share

Howard Flight, the already sacked Tory deputy chairman and soon to be ex-MP, will probably be blamed for losing the Conservative Party the next general election. That is why a panic-stricken Michael Howard is seeking to boot him out of Parliament. Never mind falling on his sword. This is a case of Mr Howard trying to regain the initiative by wielding the axe. Mr Flight might just as well have dressed up as the Easter Bunny delivering gift-wrapped eggs to every marginal seat Labour MP. On Friday 6 May, those Tory candidates who lose to Labour by a small margin will for ever lay responsibility for their failed political careers at the door of Mr Flight.

Howard Flight, the already sacked Tory deputy chairman and soon to be ex-MP, will probably be blamed for losing the Conservative Party the next general election. That is why a panic-stricken Michael Howard is seeking to boot him out of Parliament. Never mind falling on his sword. This is a case of Mr Howard trying to regain the initiative by wielding the axe. Mr Flight might just as well have dressed up as the Easter Bunny delivering gift-wrapped eggs to every marginal seat Labour MP. On Friday 6 May, those Tory candidates who lose to Labour by a small margin will for ever lay responsibility for their failed political careers at the door of Mr Flight.

The Tories should have been celebrating the latest YouGov poll narrowing the Labour lead to just one point. Only a week ago, the Tories had scored a public relations win when Labour launched a poster campaign suggesting that the Tories would make £35bn of cuts to frontline public services. Tony Blair suggested this would mean the sacking of every doctor, nurse and teacher. Most commentators regarded Labour's claims about the Tories' plans as preposterous. Now Mr Flight has made Labour's incredible claims appear politically credible - even though they remain preposterous.

Mr Flight is a wealthy and successful businessman and a great dinner companion. But when it comes to the subtleties of politics, he is the classic example of the amiable amateur. (For which, incidentally, there is a case for more - not fewer - MPs.) He was selected in 1997 for the safe seat of Arundel and South Downs, precisely because he was the antithesis of the typical apparatchik. Locals regard him as plain speaking, honest and unspun. But these qualities have led Mr Flight to commit a straightforward, old-fashioned, political gaffe.

It is the classic "own goal", reminiscent of Oliver Letwin's claim during the last general election that the Tories would reduce taxes not by £8bn but by £20bn. Ironically, Mr Flight was then a junior member of the Tory Treasury team and one might have thought he would have learned from Mr Letwin's experience. I have little doubt that there is no "hidden agenda" beyond what the Tories have already announced on public expenditure. The work done by the so-called James committee to identify savings appears to have been broadly accepted as plausible by most independent commentators. But Labour's calls for the details of the James report to be published, in full, will be deafening as they accuse Mr Flight of "letting the cat out of the bag".

Mr Flight was not quite as senior in the Tory firmament as might be imagined. He was moved, last year, from the shadow Treasury team to become a deputy chairman. He served in Iain Duncan Smith's shadow cabinet as Michael Howard's deputy when the latter was shadow Chancellor. After he became party leader in November 2003, Mr Howard initially kept Mr Flight in the Treasury team and he has claimed part ownership of the work done for the Tories by David James. But I doubt that he was, in practice, all that influential.

Nevertheless, his association with the James committee means that Labour will feel entitled to replay mercilessly the tape of his unguarded remarks to the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward. The words are there in all their glorious embarrassment: "The potential for getting better taxpayer value is a good bit greater than the James findings which have been sieved for what is politically acceptable."

The election battleground now turns on whether voters believe the Tory claims on Labour's tax plans or whether they believe Labour's claims that the Tories will go even further than their published plans on public expenditure. "Who do you trust?" will be the central question. John Reid and Alan Milburn have already charged that Mr Flight's remarks reveal that the public has been misled by the Tory proposals.

Ironically, there is a body of opinion that believes the published Tory proposals that leave only £4bn for tax cuts are actually quite modest. A serious case can be made for suggesting that Mr Flight might well be right when he suggests that there is further scope for reducing the role of the state.

Michael Howard's draconian reaction shows just how restricted genuine political debate has become. But this close to polling day, such debate - however legitimate - has to be closed off by the Tory high command if they are not to fall prey to the Labour charges.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition