If the Government's political antennas have broken down, the Conservatives' seem to be operating with an impressive acuity. Yesterday's speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research by Michael Gove, the Conservative schools spokesman, was another piece of shrewd political positioning from the Tories.
Mr Gove sought to frame Conservative domestic policy as a continuation of Tony Blair's public service reform agenda. The objective is to paint Gordon Brown as an impediment to improving schools and hospitals. Given that a majority of the public believe that, despite the vast sums of money that have been ploughed into them in recent years, these services still leave a lot to be desired, Mr Brown should be fighting desperately against being characterised in this way. The fact that he is failing to do so is another indication of how woefully he continues to misunderstand the Conservative challenge.
But Mr Gove went further yesterday, arguing that the Conservatives are the party that truly cares about the fate of poorer children. This is another audacious raid into territory that Labour (and Mr Brown in particular) has traditionally regarded as its own. And in the wake of the 10p tax debacle, this approach from the Tories has some real traction. Again, Mr Brown ought to have headed off this attack by mounting a strong defence of Labour's record on poverty. The fact that he has failed to do so explains why some in the Labour Party are wondering whether they have the right captain at the helm.
So much for the politics, what of the substance? The programme Mr Gove is proposing for reforming schools is broadly right. Allowing public money to follow each child and permitting newly-established schools to apply for funding should help break the stifling grip of the teaching unions and conservative local councils. Granting head teachers more freedom to innovate and permitting good schools to expand should also provide some healthy competition to the existing state sector. And paying a "premium" to schools for each child from a disadvantaged background they accept, as Mr Gove proposes, is a sensible way to ensure that there will remain a bias towards equity in the system.
There was another cunning piece of positioning from Mr Gove yesterday in his comments on "men's magazines". The education spokesman was adopting a tactic often deployed by Mr Blair over the years, namely articulating the public's sense that something is morally wrong with society. Mr Blair did it very effectively as shadow Home Secretary in the wake of the murder of the Liverpool toddler Jamie Bulger, when he spoke of "hammer blows struck against the sleeping conscience of the country".
Actually, on men's magazines the Tory message is not very convincing. Publications such as Zoo and Nuts may not be to everyone's taste, but it is going too far to attempt to lay the blame for a decline in moral values at their door. The phenomenon of feckless fathers predates the birth of the "lad's mag". In any case, the circulations of these magazines are on the slide. The Tory cavalry would appear to be riding over the hill just as the Indians are retreating.
But, to a large degree, such posturing is the nature of opposition. Rival parties must attempt to set the agenda and make the Government look out of touch. The real test comes when they attempt to put their radical proposals into action in office. And as we have seen, it takes considerably more than just sensitive political antennas to pull that off.Reuse content