Leading Article: Let's talk policy again

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LOWER YOUR sights from Basildon, Tunbridge Wells, Bath, Worthing, Croydon and those broad acres of the nation that are no longer ruled - in some cases, for the first time in more than a century - by the Conservative Party. Focus instead upon the boroughs of Westminster and Wandsworth. Both, in defiance of the national swing, remain, by comfortable margins, Tory councils, even though Westminster is at the centre of an unprecedented scandal concerning abuse of council house sales. What they have in common are the lowest council tax rates in the country (partly because of high levels of central government subsidy). That is the true significance of the local government elections. In most areas, people voted overwhelmingly against the Tories. Not because they particularly want Labour or the Liberal Democrats to run anything - few people care or even know who runs the local council - but because they want to tell the Government that they are browned off by slow recovery, sluggish house prices and rising taxes. But where you have exceptionally low council tax, where (unusually) a local government vote is thought to have a significant financial result, the voters' priorities change.

For the most part, then, Thursday's results are about as useful for predicting the outcome of the next general election as the configuration of John Major's breakfast tea leaves. Joy among the opposition parties should be restrained. All the evidence suggests that voters looked for the best stick with which to beat the Government, switching to Labour or the Liberal Democrats according to who stood the best chance of turfing out a Tory. If there was ever a negative protest vote, this was it. There is no sense of any tide of opinion flowing towards an alternative government, for the simple reason that nobody has any idea what it would do.

The figures that matter for the next general election are not in the ballot boxes of Wyre Forest or Great Yarmouth District Council but in the offices of Whitehall statisticians: unemployment, wage rises, inflation, interest rates, retail sales, house prices, economic growth, the budget deficit. If these are healthy at the next election, if taxation levels are falling, the Conservatives will probably win, with or without Mr Major. The voters' faith in Tory economic management will re-assert itself; Professor Galbraith's 'culture of contentment' will be back with a vengeance. MPs of all parties know this. But they will continue to huff and puff about Mr Major, to weigh the stock of Heseltines and Portillos and Clarkes, to talk of plots and splits and reshuffles and stalking horses, to demand authority, leadership and like abstractions, because that is the way of politicians.

If all this sounds bleakly cynical, the politicians have only themselves to blame. MPs, and the media pundits who trot after them, have turned everything into a sterile game of 'ins' and 'outs', 'ups' and 'downs'. Michael Portillo says that he is against a single European currency. Is this a leadership bid? An attempt to divide the party? Was Mr Portillo aware of the effects of what he said? If not, was he aware that people would criticise him for being unaware? And so tediously on. But this is a supposedly serious subject. Can Mr Portillo not be allowed to express an opinion? On a matter where there is no collective cabinet policy - and no need for one at this stage - is it really so wicked for a minister to share his thoughts with the voting public?

The best argument for Mr Major's departure is that the incessant chatter over how long he can survive and who might succeed him is polluting British political debate. If he goes, the important questions about Tory policy might at last be addressed: the excessive reliance on the free market, the dogmatic insistence on privatisation, the mishandling of education reforms, the collapse of morale in the National Health Service, the destruction of accountable local government, to take just a few examples. Perhaps it suits the Tories to keep a leader whose personal shortcomings divert attention from more substantive matters. But their squabbles and manoevrings have become a bore. So has Labour's determination to avoid anything remotely controversial. The most eloquent comment on the condition of British politics came from the electors of Rotherham who, in Thursday's by-election, gave a record vote to the ubiquitous Screaming Lord Sutch. The chatterers, plotters and spin-doctors of Westminster should take care that, next time, the voters do not turn to something less amusing.