Steve Richards: Caught between tearing their hair out and weeping for joy

'As Tony Blair set out plans for secondary education, Tory backbenchers didn't know whether to despair or cheer'

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Something very odd is going on. Conservative MPs spend much of their time with their heads down, contemplating gloomily the appalling denouement that awaits them in May. Their party's policies change almost daily suggesting that blind panic is the guiding principle of their leader's election strategy. They know, also, that most members of the Shadow Cabinet who must present the incoherent, here-today-gone-tomorrow policies are hopeless and will be dangerously exposed in the election campaign. Some of the more thoughtful Tory MPs wonder aloud whether we are witnessing the strange death of Conservative England.

Something very odd is going on. Conservative MPs spend much of their time with their heads down, contemplating gloomily the appalling denouement that awaits them in May. Their party's policies change almost daily suggesting that blind panic is the guiding principle of their leader's election strategy. They know, also, that most members of the Shadow Cabinet who must present the incoherent, here-today-gone-tomorrow policies are hopeless and will be dangerously exposed in the election campaign. Some of the more thoughtful Tory MPs wonder aloud whether we are witnessing the strange death of Conservative England.

Yet these same MPs can on occasion leap with joy. Fleetingly, they escape from a melancholy that threatens to overwhelm them. At the lowest point in their party's history they are able to recognise some of the ideas they have espoused for two decades still whirling around Whitehall. What gives these MPs even more of a buzz is that every now and again they see policies implemented which once they dared only fantasise about, ones that Margaret Thatcher in her prime was not bold enough to carry out. They live in a state of schizophrenic frenzy.

I had an emblematic conversation with a highly intelligent right-wing Conservative MP last week after Tony Blair had unveiled his plans for secondary schools. The backbencher was deeply depressed about his party's policy on education, which he knew would not stand up to scrutiny in the run-up to the election. If the policy did not fall apart of its own accord, he felt certain that Theresa May, the education spokeswoman, would give it a helping hand.

The Conservatives' policy for secondary schools is very right wing indeed - too right wing for this right-wing MP. The party is proposing to introduce "Free Schools", in which headteachers would be "free" to determine a school's approach to selection, discipline and pay.

The problem with the policy is basic. It is unworkable. As the MP said to me: "In the election campaign we are going to be asked the following question, 'What happens if the two schools in a small town in Cumbria both decide to be selective?' Where does Theresa May send the kids who fail to get into those schools? Presumably we will have to bus them to Manchester!"

But, after recovering from this preposterous vision, the MP cheered up. "Still, I'm celebrating today. I have waited 25 years for the abolition of comprehensive schools and this government's going to do it. This is a historic moment." The MP's euphoria was echoed in the Conservative-supporting newspapers, which all praised Mr Blair's announcement. It was the left-of-centre newspapers that expressed doubts, as did, privately, some normally loyal Labour MPs.

In my view those Labour MPs and newspapers were right to be wary. I happen to live in a borough in north London where the Government's flawed vision is already in place. There are several schools, including well-resourced specialist ones set up by Mrs Thatcher, that select a proportion of pupils. The result is that every motivated parent in the borough tries to get their kids into these schools. The open days for prospective parents at these schools have to be heavily policed as thousands of parents cram into the hall to make their pitch. The atmosphere is more frenzied than an Eminem concert.

Some parents who fail to get the sought-after places send their children to the numerous private schools in the area. The other so-called comprehensives sink into an unstoppable downward spiral, ignored by motivated parents, unable to attract decent teachers. As far as I can tell - the details announced last week were sketchy - this is what the Government is planning for the rest of the country.

But many Tory MPs and the Conservative-supporting newspapers do not share my sense that the education outlook is bleak. They were delighted by the Prime Minister's plans, while being alarmed at the ineptitude of their own policy and the spokeswoman promoting it.

This bizarre disjunction between the collapse of a party and the influence it continues to hold on ministerial thinking is by no means confined to education. The other most notable area is the private sector, which some ministers regard with as much awe as do Conservative MPs.

The model case here is the partial privatisation of air traffic control, a policy that is being implemented in spite of widespread and informed opposition. The Tories responded to Labour's initiative, as they did with education, by proposing an even more absurd scheme. But privately most of them are pretty pleased with what the Government is doing. We know what they are really thinking from the public comments of Baroness Hogg, formerly Sarah Hogg, the Conservative peer who worked in Downing Street with John Major. In the Lords, in spite of pressure from Tory whips who wanted to make political mischief, she voted with the Government.

"What are we doing voting against the Government when it is bringing in the private sector in a way that we fully approve of?" she asked. The Tories did not have an answer to that. Like her, they were quietly jumping with joy, seeing their ideas apparently vindicated from the distant land of opposition. The Government has offered them further vindication in its reckless determination to introduce a public-private partnership to the Underground, a scheme that offers the private sector the same sort of monopoly enjoyed by Railtrack. The Government is determined, also, to vindicate the privatisation of the railways by refusing to buy a stake in Railtrack, although ministers are bemused when they tell Railtrack what to do and the private company does not readily respond.

In some big areas - devolution and public spending spring to mind - the Tories have been led a merry dance by an increasingly confident government. But in others - secondary schools, law and order, the primacy of the private sector in all circumstances - their agenda has gone largely unchallenged by ministers.

Many commentators, and, indeed, many despairing Conservative MPs, have drawn a parallel with the 1980s when the Labour Party was in near-terminal decline. But the current situation has few echoes of the 1980s. Then the Labour Party was collapsing and its policies were hopelessly unfashionable. In the 1980s Whitehall was not buzzing with ideas on extending public ownership and increasing taxation, causes close to Labour's heart at the time. On all fronts its ideas were being challenged. Its leading figures, many of them more charismatic and impressive than the current Shadow Cabinet, found they were railing against the spirit of the times.

Now we have the curious picture of a Conservative Party apparently dying before our eyes when several of its causes are being adopted by a triumphant Labour Party. It is an illusion. The Conservatives will live to fight another day, bolstered by a government that continues to pay unwitting homage to many of their values.

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