The Week in Politics: Policies? This ship first needs to work out who is going to be at the helm

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The Independent Online

In the middle of their febrile conference in Blackpool, the Tories published an impressive 48-page pamphlet pulling together their new policies they had announced under the umbrella title Trusting People. Tory officials had hoped the document would be a highlight of the week. That it got barely a mention by the media epitomised how the party's new policies were drowned by speculation about Iain Duncan Smith's future.

Some Duncan Smith allies believe the plotting against him by his MPs was no bad thing, since it gave him the higher public profile he desperately needed. Others are not convinced because, while the attempt to oust him may have brought him to a wider audience, it was hardly a positive message.

Much of the new programme was drawn up by a committee chaired by David Davis, the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, and including frontbenchers such as Oliver Letwin and Damian Green. This cabinet-style approach allowed shadow ministers to influence each others' policies and ensured a common "people power" theme in the conference announcements on democratic control of policing and "passports" to provide more choice for pupils and patients.

The dilemma between centralism and localism is among the oldest in politics. The Tories do not have a good record; in recent times Margaret Thatcher neutered local government. Labour came to power in 1997 with a "command and control" mentality but, finding that did not work, now speaks the language of "new localism". But the old centralist tendencies are alive and lurking at Downing Street and the Treasury.

This provides a real opportunity for the Tories, whose conversion to localism seems genuine, unlike Labour's. But there are contradictions. Under Mr Letwin's plan, chief constables would be accountable to a locally elected police board, mayor or sheriff, who would decide how resources were spent. Yet at the same time the Tories make a flagship promise to provide 40,000 more officers over eight years to ensure "a more visible police presence" and "genuine neighbourhood policing".

In fact, the Tories would provide the money for the extra officers to chief constables, but would be powerless to intervene if the local board decided to spend it on something else. This is what happened when chief constables scuppered the last Tory government's plans to put 5,000 more bobbies on the beat by buying new IT equipment instead.

Mr Letwin's answer is that local people would be able to vote out a board, mayor or sheriff if they did not agree with their priorities. But the Tories are trying to have their cake and eat it.

While the Tories' desire to devolve power is real, they are less convincing in explaining how their programme would be paid for. The schools and health "passports" could each cost £2bn, and raising the state pension in line with earnings would cost £500m after four years.

Declaring "war on government waste" in opposition is the oldest trick in the political book. Finding big savings when in office is another matter. To have credibility, the Tories will need a carefully costed menu with prices. Michael Howard, the shadow Chancellor, is well aware of this, and will have to keep a tight rein on commitments by his frontbench colleagues.

One problem is that Mr Duncan Smith is keen to dangle the carrot of tax cuts in front of voters to exploit rising anger over Labour's stealth taxes, national insurance increases and council tax bills. Shadow cabinet ministers say there is no great dispute about the eventual goal of lower taxes. But there is a heated debate about how quickly a detailed announcement should be made and implemented in office. Mr Howard wants to play it long, so the Tories have a chance to get to know more about the state of the economy they would inherit, but Mr Duncan Smith needs all the headline-grabbing policies he can muster, and quickly.

There is another potential flaw in the Tory prospectus. The Tories are rightly desperate to win the voters' trust on public services, knowing this will be the crucial battleground at the next general election. Their fear is that, as in 2001, people will give Labour the benefit of the doubtalthough they are impatient with the lack of improvements. The public's perceptions of the parties, with the Tories strong on economy and Labour trusted on health and education, are hard to shift.

Labour has shown these views can be changed by winning its economic spurs, just as the Tories lost theirs on Black Wednesday in 1992. Now the Tories need to keep banging the public services drum. Mr Howard and some shadow cabinet colleagues believe premature talk of tax cuts will undermine the Tories' drive to neutralise public services as an issue. They believe an incoming Tory government might have to wait for a couple of years before cutting tax.

An immediate pledge of tax cuts would also play into the hands of Labour whose chairman Ian McCartney said: "[The Tories] will have to admit the price for these commitments can only be deep and severe cuts in public spending." Despite Mr Duncan Smith's fighting speech on Thursday, the jury is still out on whether he will be around to hone the Tories' policies for the next election. No one knows what will happen, least of all the still-beleaguered Tory leader.

But Tory MPs must make their minds up quickly whether to dump their leader or stick with him. Tony Blair is keeping his fingers crossed that they take the latter course.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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