Behind all the bluster, Mr Howard is the genuine radical in British politics

The use of public spending for private patients and private schools is a truly revolutionary measure
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The Independent Online

There is now a clear dividing line in the pre-election battle between Tony Blair and Michael Howard. Indeed they stand on either side of a gaping gulf. Mr Blair proclaims the need for bold and radical policies. In stark contrast Mr Howard highlights the Conservatives' worthy incrementalism, reaching out to voters on the basis of his openly modest "timetable for action". Mr Blair mocks Mr Howard's puny ambitions for government. Mr Howard derides Mr Blair's visionary style of leadership. The general election will be defined by a battle between an almost reckless radicalism and pragmatic caution.

There is now a clear dividing line in the pre-election battle between Tony Blair and Michael Howard. Indeed they stand on either side of a gaping gulf. Mr Blair proclaims the need for bold and radical policies. In stark contrast Mr Howard highlights the Conservatives' worthy incrementalism, reaching out to voters on the basis of his openly modest "timetable for action". Mr Blair mocks Mr Howard's puny ambitions for government. Mr Howard derides Mr Blair's visionary style of leadership. The general election will be defined by a battle between an almost reckless radicalism and pragmatic caution.

The calculations behind the two strategies are clear. It is a myth that Mr Blair is uninterested in history. He is gripped by the past and to some extent is guided by it. In this case he has studied the failings of Harold Wilson's government as it meandered complacently to unexpected election defeat in 1970. He has noted also the sense of energetic activity as Mrs Thatcher sought a third election victory. Mr Blair knows that a sense of momentum and purpose is essential to propel a government into a third term.

Equally important he recognises that the third term will be shaped by the election campaign that precedes it. The problems of the second term are partly the product of a cautious manifesto in 2001, a programme that did not dare even to address the crisis in university funding. As a political personality Mr Blair is restlessly impatient for progress and reform. Constantly he asks his colleagues: "What are we doing on this?" "How do we make more progress on that?". Mr Blair is ready to do battle clearly placed on the pre-election divide.

Mr Howard makes a different set of calculations. His internal polling shows that politicians are not trusted. He seeks to make a virtue of this negative perception by offering only a limited number of proposals that can be implemented within a strikingly quick post-election timetable. This approach also suits Mr Howard's political personality. He is not a visionary politician. Search in vain through the Howard archives for the type of crusading speeches occasionally favoured by Michael Portillo or, indeed, Margaret Thatcher. As an experienced cabinet minister MrHoward is interested in policy and the implementation of policy. Like Mr Blair he too is firmly placed on the pre-election divide.

What will be the main issues facing the victor of this political battle, the post-election agenda? One of the joys of politics is its persistent unpredictability, but we can safely assume that the thorniest policy areas will be the European constitution, pensions, tax, particularly the council tax, and the reform of public services.

For the third election in a row Mr Blair has ensured that Europe will be a relatively marginal issue, at least as far as he is concerned. No doubt the Conservatives will huff and puff about Europe, although they will puff less stridently than William Hague in 2001. They are fearful of appearing deranged about the issue. Mr Blair has a ready response to their huffing and puffing along these lines: "This is a matter that can be resolved in the referendum, but it is important for Britain to remain in Europe and the Conservatives would take us out". Beyond that Mr Blair is unlikely to say very much on Europe. After the election it will become a huge issue, not before.

We all know now the significance of pensions. At the request of the government Adair Turner has produced a brilliantly forensic report highlighting the scale of the financial shortfall as we retire earlier and live longer. There are only a limited number of options that will address the crisis, but we will not get Mr Turner's final verdict until safely after the election. What about the government's position on the politically challenging options? It could not be clearer. Ministers will await the next report from Mr Turner after the election.

The level of taxation and spending is unavoidably a problem for both Labour and the Conservatives as they seek European standards in public services and welfare with US levels of taxation. But the tax that will torment the winner of the next election is the Council Tax, a property tax in a country where property values fluctuate with a wild unpredictability. This is dangerous terrain. When the Conservatives abolished a property tax under Mrs Thatcher they replaced it with the poll tax, a policy that Mr Howard apologised for again last week. With a bold flourish the government commissioned a review of council tax. Its response was to commission a review of the original review. This review will report safely after the election.

On Europe, pensions and the council tax we do not know precisely what would happen if Mr Blair wins a third term. It will depend on the outcome of a referendum and the judgements delivered in post-election reviews.

On some of these policy areas Mr Howard is more precise. As part of his timetable for action he would withdraw Britain from the Social Chapter. This would plunge the European Union into something of a crisis. While it was possible to opt out of the chapter in the first place, withdrawing from it now is more complicated. But Mr Howard is looking for a battle with the EU as the opener in his attempt to recast the entire European project into an à la carte institution, countries choosing the scale of their involvement. This is a revolutionary objective, so revolutionary it is not clear how it will be achieved.

On pensions, the Conservatives advocate linking payments to increases in wages rather than prices, a radical shift that breaks with the Thatcherite approach in the 1980s, and also challenges the Brownite targeting of poorer pensions from the late 1990s onwards. Over time the commitment is costly and a redistribution from the poor to the better off. It is not surprising that some former Social Security ministers, such as Norman Fowler, have expressed their doubts. The Conservatives have yet to declare their final policy on Council Tax, although they hint at measures to help pensioners - a commitment that would be expensive and change again the relationship between central government and local authorities.

As far as public services are concerned Mr Blair is armed with some genuinely radical ideas based partly on the principle that the role of the modern enabling state is to empower the users of public services. The details are included in the recently published five-year plans, although some of the practical implications need fleshing out. What is already evident is that Mr Howard is putting forward incomparably more radical policies, subsidising private treatments in hospitals and paying for new private schools. The use of public spending for private patients and private schools is a truly revolutionary measure, almost as revolutionary as his plans for Europe.

The dividing lines are clear, but with an unexpected twist. Mr Blair approaches the election placed firmly on the centre ground, postponing pragmatically some of the thorniest questions for another day. It is Mr Howard who is almost reckless in his pre-election radical zeal.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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