Norman Tebbit: The perils of Howard and the nuclear option

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The Independent Online

Howard Flight's careless remarks on the scope for public spending economies seem to have ended his political career. They leave endless argument over whether Michael Howard's nuclear response will choke off Lib-Lab claims of a flesh-creeping secret agenda or inflate a storm in a teacup to a political gale. Mr Howard believes Mr Flight's remarks, if left unpunished, would raise doubts over his own political integrity. That he regards as a capital offence.

Howard Flight's careless remarks on the scope for public spending economies seem to have ended his political career. They leave endless argument over whether Michael Howard's nuclear response will choke off Lib-Lab claims of a flesh-creeping secret agenda or inflate a storm in a teacup to a political gale. Mr Howard believes Mr Flight's remarks, if left unpunished, would raise doubts over his own political integrity. That he regards as a capital offence.

Ken Clarke remains free to flout Howard's European policy - but not to suggest Mr Howard has a secret one. Any Tory is free to press for more or less public expenditure, but not to imply Howard has a secret cuts agenda.

There is clear logic in that, but politics is about judgement as well as logic. Many Tories will question if Flight should be virtually expelled from Parliament.

Margaret Thatcher was tolerant of the indiscreet comments of some ministers about her policies, and there are Thatcherites who see Flight's downfall as fall-out from the struggle between the Tories' traditionalist and modernising wings. They see nothing remarkable in Flight's view that the James Review might have thrown up technically feasible savings, which were rejected as politically unacceptable. After all, Thatcher could have saved money by closing down British Leyland - but she didn't. Thatcherites would say the electors are bright enough to see that while prices are going down, and quality going up, at Tesco, Waitrose, M&S and BHS, every service provided by government is getting dearer and quality is falling.

They believe that voters could be persuaded that there are huge savings to be had without cuts in services.

Ask a room full of teachers: "Who, outside your schools, adds value to your work in the classroom?" Members of the National Union of Teachers are aware of the town hall and Whitehall bureaucrats costing money that could be better spent. Nurses and doctors facing cut backs today see the burdensome cost of area, regional and national bureaucracy. Thousands of police are almost confined to barracks, imprisoned by mountains of Home Office paperwork.

Thatcherites are aware that, when privatised British Airways and British Telecom suffered losses, it was the shareholders, not the taxpayers, who paid, and good management which cut costs and prices to survive. And who ever saw a government department do that in the past eight years?

I would be surprised if a Michael Howard administration exhausted the scope for savings in its first five years. The Flight affair may, or may not, affect the election outcome but we will never know. What a pity that the culture of spin, smear, distortion and lies should inhibit open public discussion over the costs of providing services such as health and education, which all parties agree should be maintained.

Between what is too risky to debate for fear of scaremongering distortion (or just plain lies) and what is politically incorrect to mention, there will soon be very little that mainstream politicians can discuss with the electors. No wonder the splinter parties, BNP, Ukip, Greens and Respect are gaining support and only half the electors are expected to vote.

And what a pity we are left to guess whether the taping of Howard Flight was an Alastair Campbell operation or the work of a left-leaning Conservative journalist on The Times?

Norman Tebbit, now Lord Tebbit, is a former chairman of the Conservative Party. He was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry between 1983 and 1985

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