Blair and Howard share one characteristic: a propensity for overblown policy ideas

Like Iraq, the five-year plans are Blair's solo work, the equivalent of McCartney's repertoire after the Beatles
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair and Michael Howard are masters at presenting a brief. As skilful lawyers, they are more than capable of reading a hundred documents over a weekend, and speaking convincingly on all of them by Monday morning. Now each of them are in such elevated positions, they are responsible for writing the documents as well as presenting them. Mr Blair and Mr Howard are the driving forces behind the plethora of policy announcements they are making with such authoritative passion.

Tony Blair and Michael Howard are masters at presenting a brief. As skilful lawyers, they are more than capable of reading a hundred documents over a weekend, and speaking convincingly on all of them by Monday morning. Now each of them are in such elevated positions, they are responsible for writing the documents as well as presenting them. Mr Blair and Mr Howard are the driving forces behind the plethora of policy announcements they are making with such authoritative passion.

Mr Blair has not always sought to be so dominant on the domestic front. During Labour's first term, Gordon Brown had more political space, with Mr Blair discovering sometimes late in the day what was happening. Now it is Mr Brown who is largely excluded from the preparations of the Government's five-year plans for health and education. Having taken virtually sole charge of foreign policy in recent years, Mr Blair strides on to the domestic terrain with a similar assertiveness. There is no sign of prime ministerial contrition arising from the lack of weapons in Iraq, the failure to secure a second UN resolution, the divisions in Europe, the terrorists "flooding into Iraq" as Mr Blair has described it. Instead, he seems to have concluded that his personal style has triumphed on the international arena. Now it is Britain's turn.

In an incomparably more limited context, Mr Howard enjoys acres of political space, or at least he did when he rose to the top in extraordinary circumstances at the end of last year. The new leader was elected unopposed. A grateful party awaited its instructions. If Mr Howard had announced that he supported the appointment of an exclusively gay shadow cabinet, his party would have cheered politely. After all, the Conservatives were in no position to hold another leadership contest. They had entertained us with enough contests for the time being.

Yet the new leader has not exploited his uniquely secure position to overhaul his party's policies. With some skill, Mr Howard has finessed the Conservatives' approach to Europe, and moved on from the previously held notion that universities needed no further increase in funding. Passports for schools and hospitals have been dropped, but the proposal that patients and pupils should be offered a subsidy for private schools and hospitals is still in place. Mr Howard has focused more on making his party more professional and on convincing the voters that he is nicer than they suspect.

Mr Blair has shaped his five-year plans with an eye on what Mr Howard is up to. He has never knowingly underestimated the threat posed by the Conservatives, and has quite often overestimated it. This is not to suggest that Mr Blair's five-year plans are merely a tactical device to thwart his main political opponents. He believes in them just as he is convinced the war against Iraq was the "right thing to do". The devil, though, is in the detail. There were no weapons in Iraq. There was no chance of a second UN resolution authorising war.

As far as the five-year plans are concerned, the unavoidable tensions arise from the desire for personal choice and the need for any progressive government to ensure high standards "for the many". To take one example, in the five-year plan for health, patients are offered a choice of hospitals and a commitment from ministers to reduce waiting times. But if patients choose the best hospital in an area, the waiting times for that particular institution are bound to increase. Waiting lists will only decrease if patients agree to attend the less impressive hospitals, in which case they are not exercising much choice.

We will know more of the detailed plans for schools later today, but, as I argued earlier this week, it is not clear how the proposals will coalesce neatly around parental choice, self governing schools, no selection on the basis of ability, a strategic role for local authorities and targets from national government. Where are the levers and who will be pulling them? I am told all will make sense when the details are announced. We shall see.

The Conservatives have made it easier for Mr Blair by putting forward alternative proposals that are far less practical and more obviously iniquitous. Mr Howard could have used his astonishing coronation to announce a new start: "Ladies and gentlemen, every policy, and the values that underpin them, will be subjected to fresh scrutiny" (rapturous applause, and nervous twitching from IDS lying in a darkened room).

If such a review had taken place, he would have had a free hand to expose the weaknesses of the Government's position. Instead, Mr Howard finds himself in the odd position of having less flexibility in policy terms than Mr Blair. He will not only veto the EU constitution, but also seek to renegotiate the entire basis of Britain's membership. Within months of becoming the Shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin needlessly outlined his tax and spending plans, leaving most of his Shadow Cabinet wrestling with the prospect of nightmarish spending cuts. Most unwise of all, Mr Howard retains the proposals to subside those who have private health treatment or attend newly established private schools.

Mr Howard is a decent man, much nicer than his public image. His policies are the problem. He needs to spend less time on Richard and Judy, and engage in some deep thinking about why his party adopts policies that most voters do not seem to want.

Leading Conservatives misread the success of New Labour in opposition, concluding that the rise of Blair and Brown was largely related to a successful spinning operation. In reality, Blair and Brown, along with their entourages, spent much of their time analysing painfully why Labour had lost, what the policy implications were, and how a centre-left party could still be progressive without alienating a fatal number of voters. The Conservatives have not been introspective enough. I have yet to read a substantial speech from any of them analysing the reasons why they lost in 1997 and 2001, and what the policy consequences are of such colossal defeats.

Mr Blair also has cause to reflect on his period in opposition. He was at his most effective in terms of forming policies when he consulted more extensively. In the build-up to the 1997 election, he had also inherited a package of policies from his predecessor, John Smith. I recall him telling me in the summer of 1996 that he had spent months reading every word of every policy document inherited from Mr Smith.

Out of this intense scrutiny came fruitful changes, such as the proposal to hold a referendum on the Scottish parliament. The current five-year plans are different. Like Iraq, this is Mr Blair's solo work, the equivalent of Paul McCartney's repertoire after the Beatles. Sir Paul's solo career would have gained from wider collaborative effort.

There are some exciting ideas in Mr Blair's five-year plans, but also thorny questions over how they will work in practice. As for Mr Howard, there is probably a tiny part of him that is relieved that leaders of the opposition do not have to implement their policies.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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