Is there life on Mars?

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The Independent Online
Today this newspaper has revealed intriguing signs of intelligent life on a barren planet. Battered by storms, riven by earthquakes, its atmosphere too thin to sustain complex organisms and its natural resources exhausted, it had been written off by everyone. But, remarkably, something is stirring in the Conservative Party.

Elements of the right and centre within the Government are edging towards a new strategy for keeping the party alive and competing. Whilst their fellows remain obsessed with Europe and Nolan, they are thinking about the big issues that will decide the next election. At the moment the ideas are not definitive, but evolving. Their time horizon is similarly limited, focusing on next autumn's budget. Nevertheless their ruminations suggest an important move away from the established pattern of government responses.

And the group itself is interesting. For some time now the conventional wisdom has been that the battle for the soul of the Tory party is between Portillo and Clarke and their proxies. One represents the Thatcherite melange of nationalism and minimum direct taxation; the other seeks sound finance, low inflation and European integration. But there are some ministers who seem no longer content to act as camp followers in either of the rival armies. People like the basilisk-eyed John Redwood and the solid Brian Mawhinney are testing out combinations of policies which could delight and offend either wing of the party.

Their most interesting heresy is to tell Ken Clarke not to bother with cutting the basic rate of income tax this year. They believe that if the Chancellor has any slack, then it ought to be used more imaginatively, to target help for those virtuous citizens who have suffered in recent years. Homeowners, thrifty pensioners and married couples should all be assisted. First-time buyers could benefit from greater tax breaks; the savings threshold at which pensioners savings count against benefit could be raised; the married couples' tax allowance could be increased.

What emerges from this list is an interesting exercise in social engineering, of the kind more readily associated with the Labour Party. Instead of simply giving people more of their own money to do with as they will, the third way seeks to reward certain types of behaviour, with which they wish their party to be associated. They see all too clearly the success of the Blair appeal to Middle Britain and seek more effective ways to combat it. So instead of the "clear blue water" of tax cuts, they seek to occupy the same ground.

This is not a risk-free strategy. Whether or not the proposals are right in themselves (and we believe that some are good and some are bad), they do tend to reduce the battle between the parties to a series of gimmicks designed to placate sections of the electorate. To cynical voters these will look as much like bribes as, say, the promise of tax cuts, or of endless supplies of dosh for the NHS. In such a contest the Opposition has an advantage, since its promises are untainted by the failures of office.

But if the Redwood/Mawhinney axis can build upon these ideas to frame more radical policies, using taxation and subsidy imaginatively to effect change - such as getting people out of cars and on to trains, or encouraging fathers to look after children - then perhaps there is a future for that corner of the political galaxy.