Leading Article: Drowning in clear water

Click to follow
ONLY a few days after Tony Blair's election as Labour leader, the Conservatives are deeply divided about how to prevent him from seizing the centre ground of British politics. Ministers and MPs on the left believe the Government should show more concern for the needs of ordinary people, notably on the question of unemployment. They warn against a shift to the right that would leave the centre to Labour and/or the Liberal Democrats: such a move would alienate precisely those voters in the South whose continued support is essential for victory at the next election.

Those on the right, by contrast, hold to the importance of creating 'clear water' between Labour and Conservative policies. If Mr Blair is shifting Labour to the right, they argue, logically the Conservatives too must move to the right. Only thus can they maintain the same width of water between the two parties. One substantial snag in this strategy is that it leaves the initiative very much to Mr Blair: it is he who determines where the Tories stand, not the Conservatives themselves. If Labour moves to starboard, they must do so too.

Those on the right argue that the Government should concentrate its efforts in the three fields in which their party has long been reckoned to be stronger than Labour: taxation, education and law and order. Yet all three have become problematic. The Conservatives' credibility on taxation has been destroyed by the post-election imposition of VAT on domestic fuel, despite apparent promises to the contrary. Kenneth Clarke has admitted that this and other changes amount to an overall tax increase of 7p in the pound. If direct taxes were cut before the next election, say by the mooted 4p off the standard rate, many voters would wonder what extension of VAT they might expect to claw back the money. It will take the Tories several years to become believable again on this issue.

Prospects are brighter on education, where the sensible, competent Gillian Shephard is likely to repair much of the damage wrought by her sacked predecessor, John Patten. At the Home Office, however, there has been no change of face at the top. Mr Howard has promised time and again to crack down hard on crime, notably by imposing more and longer prison sentences. Yet neither the public nor the House of Lords have been impressed by Mr Howard's prescriptions (see below for the latest expression of outrage). His efforts to turn promises into legislation have been partially frustrated by Lords amendments; and Mr Blair's emphasis on tackling the causes of crime as well as crime itself, has put Labour ahead in opinion polls on this classic Tory issue.

The interests of the Conservative Party would be best served by standing and fighting for the centre ground, at the same time providing cleaner and more competent government. But given the tilt to the right in last week's Cabinet reshuffle and the cast of the Prime Minister's own mind, the 'clear water' camp is likely to win the argument - to the great benefit of both Mr Blair and Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats.