No option bar the radical one

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'THE BURDEN of proof lies heavily on those who tear to pieces the whole frame and contexture of their country.' No, not, as it happens, Tony Blair speaking at the weekend, but Edmund Burke. His words, written 200 years ago in his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, contains the essence of today's appeal from Labour, posing as New Conservatives, to the Old Conservatives.

Cheeky or not, it is a charge that, halfway through this fourth successive Tory parliament, the Old Conservatives are having to take seriously. The 'condition of Britain question' is being shrewdly milked by Mr Blair and the Tories' prospects of a fifth chance depend upon refuting him.

The usual pattern for a successful parliament is a flurry of radical and purposeful activity in the first couple of years, followed by a couple of years of calming everyone down, doling out tax cuts and preparing for the campaign: there is a 'work' phase and a 'fun' or 'politics' phase. The problem facing this administration is that it has lost the work phase. The vicious Maastricht conflict and the rot of the recession have left the Major government carrying the confusion and pain of the Thatcher inheritance without getting the credit for her sense of purpose.

John Major's public response to his party has been straightforward. Inflation is low. The recovery is happening. Hang on. His friends are confident he will best Mr Blair in the Commons. The party's private nightmare, though, is that the jittery middle classes it aspires to represent will conclude that recovery is not enough. They have been so shaken about, their jobs threatened, their house capital driven down, that they have become suspicious and narrow-eyed. The golden afternoon of Lawson's Britain was revealed - they'll say - as a fools' paradise. By contrast, the task of rebuilding civil society seems compelling and serious.

A clutch of cabinet ministers have, over the past few weeks, been discussing this threat and have concluded that the Tories must match Labour's new rhetoric. As one adviser put it yesterday: 'The feeling that we will be asking for a fifth term in just two years' time, against a fresh Labour leader, is concentrating minds very sharply. It isn't as bad as the 'stench of death syndrome' in 1963-64, but we need to be seen to be engaged in today's battle of ideas.'

So they have been discussing what will be, in effect, a mid-term relaunch of this administration. Yes, indeed, the Government has already had more relaunches than Grace Darling (this will be, officials confirm, its Umpteenth). But the mood is calmer. Nobody has called for the Prime Minister's resignation for a week or so. The mood can change again, something of which Mr Major is acutely conscious. Some of his apparent chums on the right would still happily defenestrate him if they caught him near a window. But worries about Mr Blair are overtaking their daydreams.

So an intellectual counter-attack is timely. But can today's Tory coalition go so far as to admit that 'every revolution contains in it something of evil'? (Mr Burke again.) Douglas Hurd has been an important player in urging colleagues to revive a more 'civic' notion of Conservatism, but similar noises have been coming from the right, too. David Willetts has been praised in this column already, which won't do him any good. But he is not alone.

Michael Howard, for instance, has recently published his 1994 Disraeli lecture on community. It argues that the Conservatives 'uniquely' understand people's instinct for voluntary work and attacks Labour's version of community as 'town hall socialism and housing and social security dependency', leading to 'alienation, atomism, lack of confidence and crime'. Michael Portillo has been addressing social-fabric questions in a briskly authoritarian tone. There's a lot of it about. There's a lot to come.

Yet none of them has the freedom to speak plainly about the failures of the past 15 years, and most are still Thatcher men in their guts. So will their counter-attack be any more than the appropriation of soothing leftish buzzwords to decorate unsoothing radical-rightish policies?

Mr Blair bases his leadership campaign on reviving a sense of community: assorted Tories leap to respond. His rival John Prescott raises the banner of 'full employment': lo and behold, David Hunt has been toying with re-using the phrase from the famous 1944 White Paper - 'high and stable' employment - for today's speech to the TUC.

Political cross-dressing is one of the oldest games in the trade. Labour has been at it shamelessly for years. But can radicals be consolidators at the same time?

The dilemma for the Tory party is perhaps best represented by 'carrot and stick' social security changes currently being gestated in Whitehall and slowly leaked by government news managers to test reaction. These changes would comprise the biggest single domestic reform of this Parliament and are designed to get more of the unemployed back to work, not by the Prescott method of public-sector expansion, but by imposing heavier penalties on them.

They are also intended to save money from the pounds 85bn-plus social security budget, described by one Whitehall insider as the 'pot of gold' which needs to be raided if Kenneth Clarke is to finance real tax cuts in November 1995, rather than merely symbolic ones. Cutting the entitlement period for benefit from 12 to six months would save only about pounds 100m in the first year, tiny compared to the pounds 1.8bn cost of cutting the basic rate of income tax by 1p in the pound. But if tougher tactics shrank the dole queues faster, the savings would be far bigger.

The whips' office advice to Mr Major is that, despite his slim majority of 15, there is a good chance of Tory MPs uniting around radical social security changes in return for deeper income-tax cuts. It's a classic Thatcher tactic.

But can the same policy be sold both as a radical tax-cutting move and as an example of caring civic Conservativism? No more than the pit closure programme can be sold as a scheme to rebuild mining communities, or rail and postal privatisation as soft-focus traditionalism. In each case, for better or worse, a clear choice has been made. Even while ministers use Blairish language, they will be driven, by force of 15 years' habit, to continue as radicals for the rest of this Parliament. Whatever the language, whatever the threat, it's too late to turn back now.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments