Leading Article: A Fifties salute from a man who never saluted

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By joining the cadets, young people can be "led away from the many temptations that there are in the modern world". Tell us more! The only thing wrong with Michael Portillo's brilliant ham performance on the Today programme yesterday was that it was too short. What temptations? How does he know? Would we like them? He played the part of a Fifties- style Tory party leader with word-perfect care, although its very carefulness made it unconvincing. "If there are any duties that are central to the Government, they concern support for the monarchy and support for the great institutions like the armed forces, for which I am responsible," he said.

In the Cabinet, Mr Portillo has, it seems, sold plans to buy a new royal boat with taxpayers' money and to put pinko schoolboys in uniform as vote- winning devices to wrongfoot Tony Blair's Bolshevik Labour Front. But his real intention was transparent: to win Tory leadership votes from the party's patriotic-authoritarian wing and to wrongfoot John Redwood.

These are clever ploys designed to work at two levels. Both fit with the Prime Minister's vision - such as it is - of returning Britain to a better-behaved and more reassuring past.

Cadets "help young people towards the good values of life, towards self- esteem, self-discipline, team work, respect for others", said Mr Portillo. "Responsibility, self-reliance, resourcefulness and endurance," said John Major in the Commons later. No doubt this has been sold in focus groups of older floating voters as just the thing for "Bring back National Service" types. The suspicion remains that the plan is more likely to reinforce the once-hardcore, now wavering, Tory vote, and hence is more likely to be aimed at the Conservative Party membership (average age 62) than the wider general electorate.

Young people themselves are unlikely to be impressed: environmental and community activities are likelier to appeal to the worldly-wise teenagers of today. But perhaps young people are not what they were - too uncomfortably questioning, too vaguely idealistic. Mr Major remembers when they were made of better stuff, and is, it seems, determined to go to the country with his backward-looking vision of a Britain of warm beer, cricket and a grammar school in every town. A Britain of 1952, the year after the Festival of Britain when the original Britannia was commissioned. When the Cabinet meets on Monday to discuss the Tory manifesto, we fear there will be a rash of new spending promises. A promise to pay for 62,000 bicycles for the police force. To buy 6,000 blackboards, four tonnes of chalk (none of it coloured) and 100,000 mortar-boards. To bring back police boxes and red telephone boxes.

Mr Portillo yesterday mined this narrow but rich seam of Enid Blyton nostalgia. His pastiche of a Tory grandee of the pre-Suez, pre-jumbo-jet era was magnificent, but it was not real politics. It was an attempt to broaden his base in the party beyond the Thatcherite neo-liberals. "We understand in the Conservative Party both the monarchy and capitalism," he said. Private sponsorship of the royal yacht risked the "danger of demeaning the monarchy". And even: "I believe in the monarchy. I believe in the royal yacht." (This is, indeed, a new religion.)

In the present-day world, the monarchy is in deep trouble and Mr Portillo is not going to save it through force of will. It was significant that both The Sun and the Mail yesterday were ambiguous in their response to the plan for the new Britannia, because they are more important than a dose of Fuhrerprinzip from Mr Portillo when it comes to giving a lead to public opinion.

In the present-day world, the cadet force might give a small minority of boys in some schools something to do that is not actively destructive of social order, but the idea that it is of any real relevance to a better society is laughable.

The key to the falsity of the Tory vision is that neither John Major nor Mr Portillo lived in the fictional 1950s they now seek to paint as their nostalgic vision (Mr Portillo, born in 1953, hardly lived in the 1950s at all).

The Defence Secretary chose not to join the cadet force at Harrow County School, his north London grammar school. This was not, as he pretended yesterday, because he happened to join the Scouts instead. As his biographer Michael Gove notes, Harrow County was known as "Little Sandhurst" and had the largest CCF of any British state school. The headmaster regarded boys who did not join as "nonconformists, saboteurs and cynics", and the youthful pacifist's decision may have cost him the chance of being head boy.

The Prime Minister, at Rutlish Grammar, another school with a strong CCF, also chose not to join. "I didn't join because I was playing cricket, which provides exactly the same qualities for people," he said, defensively describing reports of the plan as "overblown".

Collapse of the teenage army plan, then. We predict that the political vim will soon go out of the idea of buying the Queen a new yacht, too. As we report today, the arguments over the specifications for the new boat have begun already. And that is only the start. When it comes to the contract to build it, Mr Portillo will find himself constrained by European competition law which could see it being made in Greece or Finland.

The moral of this excursion into nostalgia is that it is a tribute to Labour's success. The Tories cannot convincingly appeal to a post-War golden age free of crime, when an entire nation was so awed by the coronation of the young queen they went out and rented colour televisions for it. The Tories now have so little to say on law and order and the constitution that they have resorted to trivia.