Decoding Major's hidden agenda

A fifth term of Tory government could unveil a different prime minister
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Just suppose for a moment that John Major won. Kenneth Clarke and Brian Mawhinney would justly claim much of the credit. But think what a liberating triumph it would be for Major himself. If you doubt that, just reflect for a moment on the fun that would be had at the expense of John Redwood, and his supporters, who campaigned against Major's leadership in 1995 on the slogan "No change. No chance".

This matters because there has always been a sense about John Major - odd to say about a man who has been Prime Minister for six years - of aspiration unfulfilled. From time to time friends urge him to realise that being Prime Minister is for now and not for next year or the year after that. Equally, you occasionally, in the highest echelons of the civil service, here the muttered complaint that Major is now interested only in foreign affairs, including Europe, Northern Ireland and "party management". But that is hardly surprising: managing the party for much of his premiership has been more than a full-time job. A free Mark II John Major would have the chance to impose his own agenda on the party.

You can see only the barest vestiges of what he might like to be in yesterday's "Moral Government" Spectator lecture. The headline thought, of course, is that Tony Blair has no monopoly on goodness and that there is a moral case against big government and in favour of low taxes. Never mind that taxes have gone up under the Tories or that Tony Blair has grave doubts about big government, too. Deconstructed, the speech points to rather more about the Tories election strategy and the shape of a possible fifth term than we might have expected at this stage of the cycle. Let's use a little imagination to spell out a few of the subtexts:

"We should `look further' at a lower target once we have brought spending below 40 percent of national income."

I'm interested, perhaps a little more so than Kenneth Clarke, in the idea that we could reduce state spending further than the very tough target of 40 per cent. But I'm certainly not going to commit myself to a figure as some of the far right do. Tony Blair hints at wholesale welfare reform but actually social security is growing significantly slower than the economy as a whole and we don't wholly accept there's a crisis. My main objective, deep in my upbringing, is low inflation. I certainly believe in cutting taxes but not at the expense of letting borrowing run out of control. And I don't - repeat don't - accept the hard right's agenda of privatising social insurance any more than doing so to the NHS.

"Government should not interfere and meddle."

This is familiar territory, of course; we don't want the state running people's lives or interfering in business. But there's also a libertarian argument on which my friend Norman Blackwell is very persuasive. For example, believe it or not, I think we actually agree with some of the civil liberty lobby's complaints about Jack Straw's most draconian regulation of personal behaviour, noisy neighbours and so on. We don't want a busybody society.

"Giving all in society the chance to take more control of their lives including those in Labour strongholds."

You'll be hearing quite a lot more about this. One of my rhetorical themes is going to be that the Conservatives want to help all those who are prepared to help themselves by being willing to work hard. We are very interested in developing the current Workfare pilots and running a nationwide scheme in the fifth term. This means we'll be presenting ourselves as offering hope to those in the inner cities - who, frankly, it looks as if Tony Blair is abandoning in his rush for the votes of Middle England. At least, that's what some of his left-wingers complain he's doing. We like Jack Kemp's attempts to to take Republicanism into the inner cities.

"Every child the choice of a state-funded education."

It is going to come in a lot more forms than at present. Frankly, much as I love Gillian Shephard, I think I'll have to move her in favour of someone more amenable to my ideas, such as Michael Forsyth or William Hague. I really do want a lot of grammar schools. Also, the Government's new accounting system will allow the private sector to provide new schools that will receive state funding for every pupil. Privately owned, publicly funded. And lots of choice. What could be better? I also like the East Harlem pattern (shades of Jack Kemp again) where teachers can set up and run their own academies within existing state schools, teaching sport or drama and so on.

"A private company can provide a public service."

Who says we can't do more privatising? I agree with Michael Heseltine that we should sell off the Royal Mail. There are Cabinet opponents, so it won't necessarily be in the manifesto. We might not put the London Underground in the manifesto either - but provided BR privatisation works, you can be sure we will privatise the Tube. And we might well sell off Channel 4, too.

Major's chances of winning with this or any other agenda are still dauntingly slim. But last night's lecture was the fist shot in a campaign by the consistently most under-rated operator in post-war British politics. The irony is that if he did pull it off, this would almost certainly mean the an eclipse for the British new right. There will be endless debate about whether this distinctively Majorish blend agenda amounts to "caring conservatism", as he claimed last night, but Gingrichism it certainly ain't.