Steve Richards: The Tories won't win the next election by offering old policies in new wrappings

Voters want decent public services and recognise that they have to be paid for
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The Independent Online

As a bonus, Mr Davis reminded his audience that he knew what it was like to be poor, brought up by a single parent on a council estate. Already he has spoken of his childhood many times, and he will do so again. He regards his upbringing as the equivalent of Mr Blair's abolition of Clause IV in its potency. In the months to come, Mr Davis's upbringing will become as well known as David Copperfield's, and projected with a similar Dickensian flourish.

What is more, Mr Davis's speech developed a compelling context for his policy agenda. Recent Conservative leaders have worked on the foolish assumption that policies could emerge from nowhere and the voters would respond with gratitude. Since 1997 there has been a tax guarantee here and a spending cut there. Why were we being offered them? What were the values that determined the policies? William Hague worried more about whether he looked better in a baseball cap or a crew cut (I preferred the baseball cap) in the same way that some so-called modernisers seem to believe that not wearing a tie will lead them to power.

Mr Davis is more substantial and serious than his reputation suggests. Some in his own parliamentary party portray him as a devious lightweight. The speech suggested otherwise. He explained in some detail why he believed that a smaller state, decentralisation and lower taxes would help to improve public services and offer opportunities for the poor. To coin a phrase, he would cut taxes and deregulate for a purpose.

There was, though, a problem with the speech. With force, Mr Davis constructs a noble purpose, but the policies remain the same. He wraps up the same goods in smart new paper. Mr Davis is open about this. I chaired the meeting and asked him about the contrast between the novelty of the language and the familiarity of the policies. He acknowledged that he was not troubled by the policies and went on to confirm that he would retain the current proposal to subsidise patients using private hospitals. He was enthusiastic also about the flat tax, or at least flatter taxes.

Tony Benn was mocked for stating in the early 1980s that it was policies, not personalities, that mattered. As a mesmerising personality with wobbly policies, he undermined his own theory. But Mr Benn was right. Policies define political personalities and parties. They can be liberating, fatally constraining, formed pragmatically, rooted ideologically. In the end voters give their verdict on the basis of policies. Mr Davis is happy with most of the Conservatives' vote-losing policies.

The most important element in the rise of new Labour was the intense work carried out on policy development. The media focus on spin, trust and control freakery grossly distorts their significance. From 1992 onwards Blair, Brown and a few others spent most of their time sweating over policy. The soundbites and newspaper headlines were the end of the sequence and not the essence of the entire political project. Vote-losing policies were pragmatically dumped, but it is wrong to assert that nothing was left.

To take one example of many: the windfall tax on the privatised utilities to pay for the welfare-to-work programme. Here was a policy cleverly devised to prove that a tax could be popular and to show how the cash could be fruitfully spent. But it was more than symbolic. In the mid -1990s the shadow treasury team spent huge amounts of time preparing the detail to ensure that the tax was successfully implemented.

Some Conservatives work on the assumption, as Labour did in the early 1980s, that there is nothing wrong with their policies, if only they could explain them better. An explanation helps, of course. But it is not sufficient. Voters want decent public services, and on one level recognise that they have to be paid for. The last election proved they do not want to subsidise the private operations of the relatively affluent. In the end they do not want their services run by disparate locally elected bodies or the private sector. As Mr Davis would discover if he became Prime Minister, he would get the blame if there were a train crash in Middlesbrough or a scandal at a hospital in Kent. This is what President Bush has discovered in New Orleans. In their desperation people turn to elected politicians and the political infrastructure for support.

There is a dangerously enticing argument believed by many on the right that by the time of the next election voters will tire of the higher public spending of Mr Brown and respond once more to the promise of tax cuts and a smaller state. I heard the same argument deployed by them after their 2001 defeat. In the case of the next four years, a more pressing question is whether the Government will be spending enough, not least when ministers are making new commitments all the time. Where, for example, will the vast amount of money come from to pay for the renewal of the nuclear deterrent that ministers are contemplating?

I do not pretend this is easy, and Labour has only partially succeeded, but the Conservatives need to define what government is responsible for and how they would carry out those responsibilities. They would be much better placed, at least for now, to accept the current level of public spending and argue that they would use the money more effectively. Otherwise they will walk into the same old traps again.

Having been on the losing side four times in a row, Mr Blair is conditioned to watch the Conservatives obsessively. Earlier this year he told me that Michael Howard had made an immediate fatal error when he was elected leader. In Mr Blair's view, Mr Howard should have announced a policy review. Instead, Mr Howard stated that there was nothing wrong with the policies, but they needed to be presented more effectively. Not for the first time Mr Blair had a more instinctive sense of what a Conservative leader needed to do. Now it is Mr Davis who publicly affirms his commitment to existing policies, and the next leadership contest has not started yet.

On Wednesday Mr Davis made a brilliant speech. If he wins the leadership election and carries through the policy implications of the speech, the Conservatives will lose again.