Then, a few days later, we gained a rare glimpse behind the Tory frontage. A confidential Whitehall paper warned that "insufficient resources threaten the provision of education in the state school sector". At a stroke the confident, breezy exposition of Conservative education policies, focusing on choice, standards and discipline, was undermined. Yet the Tories have no obvious way to increase funding substantially, given that they want to make tax cuts.
These two events are reminders, as the party conference season opens on Sunday, that Britain's mainstream parties are still short of ideas to guide Britain into the 21st century. With the general election no more than 20 months away, time is running out.
The inadequacies of conventional party thinking are hardly surprising given the pressures of the past year. The two most significant political events have not been characterised by debate about the future development of Britain, but by the demands of internal party battles. Thus the Prime Minister has had to see off the Euro-rebels and Mr Blair has been preoccupied by the need transform his party, bringing it up to date with the legacy of Thatcherism. As a result, a year after his election as Labour leader, he heads a much changed party - a third of the party's members have joined since he took over. But the Blair effect has so far had little impact on the debate about public policy in general.
All this - and the desire for power - tends to shoehorn the political parties into the same confined political space. Thus it would be hard to slide a cigarette paper between the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats on economic policy. Each is more prudent than the last. On education, a great preoccupation of modern politics, each emphasises that the subject is top priority. The law and order issue again throws up a set of mirror images. Only on Europe and constitutional reform is the incumbent party really distinguished from its opponents.
What emerges from this neo-consensus is a dramatic lack of vision about the future shape of British society and its relationship with the world. The pace of change in the information revolution is dramatic and central - and yet policy formulation completely lacks the urgency that even fairly conservative predictions would seem to suggest.
Part of this, of course, is due to the fact that nobody wants to suggest anything that the voters might not like. And yet there is a very real need to take political risks - to offer the electorate courses of action with long-term advantages but immediate penalties.
Fortunately, amid all this conservative, consensual thinking, there are a few mavericks - lone radicals pressing for new ideas. And they are to be found in all parties. Frank Field, the Labour MP, is a typical member of the awkward squad. He has called for a radical overhaul of the welfare state and for real steps to be taken to end a culture of welfare dependency. While all three parties have been unable to recommend much more than tinkering with the benefit system in a way that is unlikely to effect its long-term claim on taxation, Mr Field has pioneered his own proposals based on compulsory saving.
But he is short on company. Across the political divide, John Redwood is, to some extent, an encouraging exception. This year's Tory leadership contest offered him the chance to make radicalism a serious force in politics. He fluffed it. His policies had some interesting elements. For example, he supported an end to the Westminster cap on local council spending. But the bulk of his manifesto was flaky, discredited by a mishmash of populist measures designed to win over Tory right-wingers. Some were impractical (pounds 5bn tax cuts achieved by efficiency savings), others merely opportunist (preserving the royal yacht).
Meanwhile a variety of think-tanks and working parties give expression to a plethora of options - virtually none of which have been endorsed by the political parties.
Yet Britain needs a surge in radicalism - unless institutions and societies are open to serious change, they tend to stagnate and go into decline. And the conformists do not have the answers to the problems that plague Britain. If they simply please (rather than challenge) the voters, then we can expect this country simply to continue sinking into the mud at a centimetre a year.
We all know that the education system requires a dramatic rethink. Almost everyone - even Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment - agrees that schools need more money. We need ways of raising the money, through extra taxation at a local or national level, private spending or a shift in resources from higher education. There is far too much poor teaching, poor management and poor learning. Dealing with it requires more than just opting out, parental choice, tougher inspections and the closure of bad schools.
Thinking on the welfare state and the environment is similarly underdeveloped and inadequate, given the scale of the problems. How is Britain to make sure, for example, that when the baby boomers reach old age in the next century, they will not overwhelm the health and social services and pension provision upon which they will rely?
A radical would address the modernisation of the British state, its institutional and constitutional structures. How should we reform a parliament which has become, as one commentator put it recently, like a ocean liner in the age of jet travel? What steps must we take to ensure that our culture remains vibrant, open to the outside world, at ease with multi-ethnicity and pluralism - not just for the sake of liberalism, but because that's what the modern world demands?
These issues are vital, but they won't get much attention in the coming weeks as Labour does battle over the minimum wage, the Tory Europhobes run wild and the Liberal Democrats get in a lather over co-operating with Tony Blair. But when they are over, it will be time for the innovators to make their views known. The message must be - radicals of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your parties.Reuse content