LEADING ARTICLE:Clarke throws down his gauntlet

Click to follow
Last autumn the political air was thick with talk about a new big idea that was struggling to be born. Mr Major made the search for it the cornerstone of his speech to the Conservative Party conference in October. The Governor of Hong Kong, in a rare foray into domestic policy, appeared to put an intellectual stamp on it in the autumn. Perhaps, some excited observers thought, we are about to bear witness to the beginning of a new era - the era of the enterprise economy, modelled on South-east Asia's tigers and based upon markedly lower public spending on welfare.

To some, the idea is relatively simple. Britain should become a very low tax economy, setting a target for state expenditure nearer the 30 per cent level of the United States than the 42 per cent it is stuck at here. This would be accomplished by encouraging individuals to make private provision for a range of services now provided by the state. This low- tax economy would be much more likely to encourage the enterprise and attract the investment that is needed to compete successfully with the countries of the Far East.

Yesterday, however, it became clear that one key Conservative - the one who holds the purse strings, the Chancellor of the Exchequer - has no intention whatsoever of travelling down this particular path. In his speech to the Centre for Economic Performance, Kenneth Clarke, in what will be a credo for the Tory centre-left, restated the traditional argument that the most effective way to reduce public spending as a share of the nation's wealth is to make sure the economy grows, thereby automatically reducing the share taken by the state. It is not unlike something that Gordon Brown would come up with in one of his more fiscally relaxed moments. It would be unwise, the Chancellor implied, to stake too much on shifting provision from public to private, since the certainties of the welfare state help to underpin individual confidence, and thus future economic success.

You can imagine the indignation of the Tory right at this speech. Actually, you'll have to imagine it, because there wasn't any. The sad fact is that those on the post-Thatcherite right, with all their clamour for radicalism, have no appetite for spelling out what their radicalism might entail. John Redwood failed to do it, and Chris Patten hasn't done it. A detailed vision may yet emerge. But to be frank, Tony Blair shows more sign of being tough on welfare than the mad hatters of the right.

Mr Clarke has put down his marker. We wait to see whether the right can respond with more than heated waffle.