How the Tories can still win another five years

Europe is a key issue but health, education and crime must all be addressed if this government is to be re-elected
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The Independent Online
May the first is a good day for a general election. In many parts of the country, voters will be able to elect councillors at the same time as an MP. We could have a decent debate on what is needed in our schools, on our streets, in our communities, bringing together both the local and the national.

People want answers to how educational standards can be raised, crime controlled, gridlock tackled. It does need local as well as national action. I hope John Major does have a chance to debate with Tony Blair.

There are so many unanswered questions. How would Mr Blair avoid importing unemployment with Euro policies? How would he improve our schools when Labour councillors have often made them worse? How would he encourage more detection of crime when Labour has been tough on police authorities under their sway? He has ducked too many of these issues so far.

There are some Conservatives who believe that a stronger line on Europe is all that is needed to win the election comfortably. I do not believe that Europe is enough. It is one of the big issues on doorsteps. It is the main issue amongst party faithful. But there are others.

Many of us want to be part of our continent, and to help it on the paths of peace and prosperity. We want Britain to argue vigorously around the tables of Europe for the right kind of Europe: for a Europe which works, for a Europe which can offer some hope of jobs as well as peace to our young people. That means changes to the agenda of the Union. It means not withdrawal, but using the veto, and the power of argument to deflect Europe from more government and more taxes, into a path of more jobs and fewer laws. Europe does not suffer from too many currencies or too few regulations. It suffers from too few jobs and too many regulations.

Britain should be saying that business needs more open markets in everything from aviation to telecommunications; that small business needs fewer social costs to employ more people; that economies facing mass unemployment need exchange rates and interest rates that help them get people back to work. We should say that Germany and France have fumbled in their compromise for the Stability Pact. It makes no sense to fine countries that are having trouble balancing their budgets. We should suggest a better way to make the western European peoples prosperous.

To win the election, Conservatives have to show how education, health, law and order will improve under another five years of Conservative administration. We have to explain how, in the last three years, we have followed the right economic policy, and how Labour's plans could damage that. We must show that the Conservative government is 18-years-experienced and energetic in office, not 18-years-old and tired.

We should not be warned off education by Labour complaining that if there are faults still in our schools it is the result of 18 years of Conservative government. Labour used to believe there was nothing wrong with our schools that a few billion pounds more would not put right. Now they say that for the next two years, if they were given the chance, they would spend exactly the same as the Conservatives.

They have also conceded that things are not right in all our schools. They may even have noticed that Labour runs most of the Education Authorities, and that those authorities have the powers necessary to sort the problems out.

Mr Blunkett [Labour's education spokesman] has been more damning than me in commenting on teaching quality. He has confirmed the Chief Inspector's figure of 15,000 bad teachers. He has implied they should be sacked: an extreme approach. Does he realise that most of these teachers are employed by Labour Education Authorities, and by Boards of Governors with many Labour members? What is stopping him sorting it out?

Conservatives propose a way to improve it. We believe in publishing the test results. We believe in more regular and better inspection. We believe in more parents having a choice of school. We believe in governors having more power to improve things. Gradually standards are rising. We need five more years to make much more progress.

It is the same with law and order. Crime has been falling for the last four years. It is still far too high. We need to see through reforms of sentencing and prisons that are now being put in place. We need to encourage and strengthen the police, freeing more men for detection and beat work. We need to raise the level of detection and clear up. We may need to break the monopoly of the Crown Prosecution Service, to bring more cases to court.

The electorate are very worried about health. Stephen Dorrell has stated that we should keep more of the smaller, local and older hospitals open. This is welcome. We need to see the results on the ground. However many more patients are being treated, however much the waiting lists come down, if the local hospital is closing it creates an impression of a NHS in retreat. That is an unfair reflection of all the extra money and activity. There is no need for it to happen.

A positive, alternative approach to Europe, offering Europe something better than Chancellor Kohl's vision of Maastricht misery, would help. So too will positive campaigning on the big issues that worry people in their daily lives. Insincere Mr Blair is offering nothing. He now accepts Conservative spending plans with the addition of a tax on fuel and water. He accepts much of our law and order programme. His education spokesman admits the problems but offers no solutions. In the days that remain, Conservatives must offer people a real choice: policies that can raise school standards, health quality, and living standards as well as a programme for a Europe that works.

The writer is Conservative MP for Wokingham.