Leading Article: Don't blame us, we're in power

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HAS THERE been some terrible misunderstanding? Have we all been living through some ghastly nightmare? Did the programmers of the BBC's election night computers commit some fatal error back in the late 1970s? Are we wrong to think that the Conservatives have been in power for more than 14 years?

Listening last week to speeches at the Tory party conference in Blackpool - and particularly to the Prime Minister's closing remarks - you might well think so. 'Many people, particularly those who are older,' said John Major, 'see things in the streets and on their television screens which are profoundly disturbing. We live in a world which seems to be changing too fast for comfort, old certainties crumbling, traditional values falling away.' Yes, indeed. Change may be too fast for teachers, grappling with the complexities of the national curriculum and the pressure to opt out of local authority control. Too fast for doctors and nurses, trying to come to terms with fund-holding and market mechanisms. Too fast for railway passengers, as fares rise and services are cut in readiness for privatisation. Too fast for mining communities, as pits are closed and thousands thrown out of work. Old certainties are indeed crumbling for those who expected the state to provide a decent minimum income in old age and for those who put their faith in the National Health Service to provide adequate care when they were sick. Traditional values are indeed falling away when we see, as Mr Major put it, 'attacks, week after week, on the very pillars of our society'. He mentioned the Church, the law and the monarchy. Others would single out the BBC, the universities, the trade unions, public servants generally.

THE Winter Gardens, Blackpool, has no windows on the outside world. Delegates can spend a 10-hour day inside, sustained by its restaurants, bars, bookstalls and fruit machines. Perhaps this explains why the conference speeches were so divorced from reality, why the Tories could not see themselves as others see them. The week had two dominant themes: first, a brilliant Government should be congratulated on its policies; second, the country is going to the dogs. The resolution of this apparent contradiction was that the second was not the fault of the first. It was the fault of foreign welfare scroungers, single mothers, trendy teachers, feckless parents, sociologists, Labour councils and, of course, those shadowy figures responsible for the betrayal of values in the 1960s, a mythological concept that is ominously assuming the same proportions in British politics that the 'stab in the back' did in the German politics of the 1920s and 1930s. This creation of a series of bogymen and bogywomen is a dangerous development in an increasingly desperate party.

Ministers spent the week setting up a series of false targets and advancing upon them like crazed members of a weekend shooting club. Yes, some single teenage girls get pregnant in order to qualify for council accommodation. How many is anybody's guess. But to argue that this is a problem of significant proportions is absurd. If women are allowed to 'jump' housing queues, it is because they have children, not because they are single. They may well have to spend months, if not years, in bed and breakfast or temporary accommodation before they get a council flat, probably on one of the upper floors of a tower block. Not surprisingly, many prefer to live with their parents, if that is possible. A survey of 110 teenage mothers, carried out by Middlesex University last month, found that only three planned to get a council flat when they discovered they were pregnant. Asked why they had got pregnant, none mentioned an ambition for council accommodation.

Likewise, some people from overseas no doubt come to Britain because our welfare system is more generous than in their own country. But the numbers involved - about 17,000, according to the Department of Social Security - are hardly enough to make a significant impact on a pounds 50bn spending deficit. Possibly, to take the target chosen by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, some parent governors are intimidated by Labour councillors against voting for their schools to opt out of local authority control. 'The intimidation of parent governors must stop,' Mr Patten said. 'And it will.' So he will have secret ballots on governing bodies. Can he seriously pretend that this measure will improve the education of significant numbers of children? And did it cross his partisan mind, as he basked in the applause of the faithful, that some sceptics might argue that the same arrangement could apply to backbench MPs who have suffered intimidation from Whips on more momentous matters such as Europe and pit closures?

The proper targets for ministers are housing shortages, unemployment, bad teaching in schools. But these are problems too complex, it seems, for a party conference. Further, their continued existence attracts too much scrutiny of the Tory policies of the past 14 years. Faced with sluggish economic recovery, a nationwide outcry over the taxation of fuel bills, continuing party disunity on Europe, growing disillusion with market-driven solutions, ministers chose an appeal to the party gut. It was not a pretty sight.