The leader isn't the problem. It's the lack of ideas

At Tory conferences my search for ideas leads only to a slow, insistent, rhythm. Cut taxes
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The Independent Online

I am wandering around the red-brick Bournemouth tomb the Tories have chosen for their party conference. I've been to three of these . Three leaders. Three cheering grey multitudes. Three disasters.

I am wandering around the red-brick Bournemouth tomb the Tories have chosen for their party conference. I've been to three of these . Three leaders. Three cheering grey multitudes. Three disasters.

Is this the way the Tory party will always be, a fading fringe littered with eccentrics? I decide to track down some of the famous Bright Young Tories tipped to run the country in 20 years' time. Do they have anything new or interesting to say? I meet up with Florence Heath, 22, in the conference's Costa Coffee, where flocks of elderly Tories are perching. (I spot at least three of Thatcher's Cabinet ministers. It feels like the politicos wing of Madame Tussauds). Florence is one of the founders of the Taxpayers' Alliance, a group that campaigns for massive cuts in taxation because, she explains, "it's your money. You should spend it how you want to". She grew up in France where "I saw excessive taxation in action", but the themes she gives voice to dominate British Conservatism. "There is £50bn of waste in government spending. That's enough to raise the starting rate for paying tax from £4,700 to £10,000. Think about how that could change people's lives."

Every young Tory talks about tax obsessively. It's their one idea. "All tax is theft. Theft!" yells one teenager at me, apparently unaware that he is barking the ideas of an anarchist, not a Tory. But most - like Florence - make a quiet, sober case. The old Powellite bigotries seem to have faded. Even the other Tory obsession - hostility to the European Union - is mostly motivated not by xenophobia but by paranoia about tax. "Europe? Tax? It's the same issue!" Dan Woodward, a young Conservative, tells me pithily.

At Labour and Liberal Democrat fringe meetings, the air vibrates with policy talk; a thousand solutions for a thousand problems. At Tory conferences, my search for ideas leads only to a slow, insistent rhythm. Worried about poverty? Cut taxes. Worried about climate change? Cut taxes. Worried about unemployment? Cut taxes.

The problem the Tories have is not that this tax-cutting message is failing to get across. Their problem is that everybody understands it. We all knew that Major and Hague and IDS would cut taxes - and they were all rejected. Away from the Westminster Village trivia that dominates our political discourse, something important is happening. The British people have reached the end of their patience with the Tory tax-cutting mania. Darting from fringe meeting to fringe meeting, I find no other ideas. Aside from raw Blair-hate, all I hear about is endless tax cuts - with the aim of whittling the share of GDP spent by the state to an American 35 per cent, as shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin has proposed as a long-term goal. Out there in the real world, this boils down to one simple message: You're on your own.

Got a problem with health, childcare or looking after your elderly parents? Don't look to the government to help you. Don't expect risk to be shared among us all. No; the Tories want to cover you in honey and throw you to the markets.

This model of passive government is not, ultimately, appealing to many British people. As I strolled around talking to tomorrow's Michael Howards and David Davises, the problem the Tories face became clear.

They are trying to sell an American political message - a Republican anti-government anti-tax crusade - in a European social democracy. British people have a pragmatic attitude towards markets: we think some services should be provided by markets and some should be provided collectively through tax. This is not America: we do not have romantic delusions about the unfettered market bringing justice and prosperity for all. We know there are some things we do better together.

I watch Michael Howard's speech with a cluster of young Conservatives. When the leader lauds French hospitals and Swedish schools, they applaud on cue. But British people aren't thick. They know those schools and hospitals are excellent because they are funded with high European levels of taxation. For all the decades of Thatcherism and Murdochite brain-washing, we instinctively expect the state to help us solve these problems - even if the price is higher tax. We do not want our state to shrug and run away.

As I nearly collide with another ancient Thatcher minister who I thought died years ago, Florence tells me: "We don't want fat government. We want to give power to the people." But is handing key services from democratic governments to remote corporations really empowering people? Is abolishing Labour's mildly redistributive programmes - from tax credits to the New Deal - really the way to extend freedom? The Tories have shouted this tax-slashing, state-trashing agenda for more than a decade, and they are drowning in their clear blue water. They blamed Hague for their failure; they blamed IDS for their failure; now in Bournemouth they blame Howard for their failure. Forget this personality-based babble. The Tories' problem is not the singer but the song.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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