Howard has a copy of 'How To Do Politics' but he's only skim-read it

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The Independent Online

One of Tony Blair's favourite riffs in private is how easily he could turn the Conservative Party round if he were hired as a consultant. He usually ends the refrain by joking that the Tories couldn't afford his fees. Self-regarding, yes. But wrong? I don't think so. Michael Howard has blundered again, and again he has done so by trying to imitate Blair while lacking his finesse.

One of Tony Blair's favourite riffs in private is how easily he could turn the Conservative Party round if he were hired as a consultant. He usually ends the refrain by joking that the Tories couldn't afford his fees. Self-regarding, yes. But wrong? I don't think so. Michael Howard has blundered again, and again he has done so by trying to imitate Blair while lacking his finesse.

The expulsion of Howard Flight, the party's former deputy chairman, from the Conservative parliamentary party is an extraordinary act. Most of the initial commentary has been remarkably sympathetic to Howard. Flight had committed a terrible crime - suggesting that the Conservatives were saying one thing in order to get elected and would do another in office - and had to pay a terrible price. Only Flight himself and Paul Dendle, a district councillor and chairman of a branch of Flight's Conservative Association, thought the withdrawal of the whip was "a step too far".

Yet the disciplinary procedure, partly an accidental by-product of Labour legislation to regulate party finances, is alien to British politics. The idea that the party leader, acting alone, can decide who may or may not stand as an official party candidate is new. For centuries, discipline in the House of Commons has been dictated by the party whips, and the chief whip is usually the creature of the party leader. But the choice of parliamentary candidates is historically in the hands of the wider party. In 1997, John Major was powerless to prevent the local parties in Tatton and Beckenham insisting on Neil Hamilton and Piers Merchant as their candidates.

The Conservative Party is now more Stalinist than the "control freak" Blairite Labour Party. When the Labour Party in Halifax chose the left-wing Linda Riordan to replace Alice Mahon as its candidate in the coming election, the national leadership wanted her blocked but were overruled by a majority on the National Executive Committee. No doubt, if there had been some committee responsible for vetting Tory candidates, it would have done what Howard wanted - just as the Arundel Tory association caved in - especially with an election so imminent. But to have such things decided by diktat from the leader's office is still unusual.

More striking is the nature of the offence that prompted such a disciplinary over-reaction. To bar someone as a parliamentary candidate for expressing orthodox but inconvenient views goes further than before. If the Labour Party were to take a similar line, Blair would be able to issue a press release preventing a list of names - from Diane Abbott to Alan Simpson - from standing as Labour candidates. No Tory mole has bothered to attend the necessary dreary meetings to tape record them, but many of Labour's habituated rebel MPs express the view that, if Blair gets back in with a small majority, the left would try to push through higher taxes and an end to "choice" in public services.

Conservative Way Forward, the Thatcherite faction that Flight was addressing last Wednesday, is the mirror image of the Labour left. It represents a large minority of the Tory grass-roots, just as the sub-Marxist left does of the Labour membership. It consists of true believers who think that the only thing wrong with Margaret Thatcher's government was that it was subverted from within by socialists such as Major, Clarke and Hurd into continuing the post-war Labour consensus by other means.

It would have been enough to sack Flight as deputy chairman. Prodding the Thatcherites with a sharp stick this close to an election was bizarrely unwise. The last thing William Hague wanted in the last election was Thatcher's "The Mummy Returns" performance. The last thing Howard needs this time is Norman Tebbit expressing his icy scepticism (see opposite).

One intelligent Tory candidate privately defends Howard's action by saying: "We were looking for a Clause Four moment." Yes, but this wasn't it. If it was an attempt to reverse perceptions of fundamental Tory attitudes towards the public services, it will not have worked. The simple message that too many voters will take from this episode is that some Tory in a checked shirt has been sacked for blurting out some unpalatable truth.

I am sure that if Blair were giving the Tory party advice it would be along the lines of "I wouldn't start from here". The awful truth for Howard is that Flight's speech re-opened a debate that he ought to have closed down in a decisive "Clause Four moment" when he became leader 18 months ago. Last week, it raged in the columns of The Times, with Matthew Parris arguing that the Tories should be true to their tax-cutting soul against Tim Hames defending the Howard-Letwin strategy of matching Labour's spending plans. The problem for Howard and Oliver Letwin, his shadow Chancellor, is that their strategy has been foisted on the party by stealth, and it has not been supported by two essential props. The first, and more serious, is that the policy work has not been done to persuade people that the Tories could deliver better value for the same amount of money in health and education. The second is that the spending message has been confused, not just because it cuts across what people expect from the Tory party but because Letwin has tried to offer modest tax cuts as well.

Flight has therefore been sacked for saying something reasonably clear where the official party line is cloudy. He thinks, and many if not most Tories agree with him, that the scope for lower public spending is greater than advertised. At the last election, Letwin famously thought so too - he was then the No 2 Treasury spokesman and had to go into hiding during the campaign for saying so. Earlier this month, John Redwood, who is still a member of the Shadow Cabinet, described the £35bn lower spending planned for 2011-12 as a "down payment". Far from fitting a coherent message, Flight's disqualification makes no sense.

Howard has bought the copy of Blair's Guide To How To Do Politics, but he's only skim-read it. He thought he had to prove he was a strong leader. He was trying to maintain "message discipline". But he simply failed to sort out the overall strategy into which such minor political skills fit.

Result: jubilation and relief in the Labour war room. Not only was Flight's original offence a gift to a Labour campaign that had been written up as "on the defensive" by a press desperate to see a competitive election, but then Howard compounded the error. His misjudgement was explicable, because his staff had explicitly warned Flight to keep an eye on the ideological altimeter just before the speech. But anger is no substitute for leadership. Flight's comments were a turning point in an election campaign that has not even begun. Howard's over-reaction has ensured, in the old Thatcherite slogan, that there is no turning back.

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