Geoffrey Howe: The Tory party needs a collective leadership

We have been struggling to prevent Labour claiming title to the common ground which we defined

Monday 13 June 2005 00:00

Tory governments have been dismissed from office three times in the last four decades. On two occasions we were back in power within six years. This time the party is likely to be out for at least twice as long. There are crucially important lessons to be learned from this comparison.

Tory governments have been dismissed from office three times in the last four decades. On two occasions we were back in power within six years. This time the party is likely to be out for at least twice as long. There are crucially important lessons to be learned from this comparison.

The first lesson is about party management; the second is about policy development. When Margaret Thatcher started assembling her front-bench team in 1975, she followed Ted Heath's example of ten years before. They both recognised that if they were to gain the broadly based support that was essential for electoral success, then their own shadow cabinets had to match that pattern.

There was no passion to discard figures, just because they might be reminders of past misjudgments - from the three-day week to Bloody Sunday. We all recognised the need to get out of our ideological fox-holes. My job, as chairman of our Economic Reconstruction Group - which ranged from Keith Joseph and Angus Maude, on the one hand, to Jim Prior and Ian Gilmour, on the other - was certainly challenging. But we were driven by a common sense of purpose.

Two things made our task easier than it is today. First, was the widespread recognition of impending crisis - and of the need for courageous action - if the country was to be rescued from economic collapse and social disorder. And second was the (not always easily visible) emergence of inter-party common ground on crucial policy questions. The need for reform of labour law, for example, had already been highlighted by Barbara Castle, and for tough "monetary" policies by Denis Healey, under imperative pressure from the IMF.

These were some of the factors which prompted Jim Callaghan, on the eve of Margaret Thatcher's election, to observe that "once every 30 years there is ... a shift in what the public wants, a sea-change." And it was that "sea-change" which we were able to deliver, so that by the early 1990s we had succeeded in fulfilling Keith Joseph's cherished ambition "of redefining, of shifting, the common ground" of British political debate.

Thereafter, some of us rightly predicted, policy would have to be "economically market-driven, socially One Nation/libertarian, and internationally outward-looking". Any party, we predicted, which moved significantly out of line with those principles would come under strong pressure to return to a more mainstream position.

Probably the most important consequence of that perception was the emergence of New Labour - and its delivery by Tony Blair. Thus was created the dilemma that has confronted the Tory party ever since. We have been struggling - or should have been - to prevent Labour claiming monopoly title to the common ground which we had defined.

Given so much broad agreement about what people want from their politicians, the temptation has been for party leaders to behave like competing supermarket proprietors - with "cut-price", "bargain" offers and flashy packaging; 11-word election manifestos and the like. The great constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot, wrote at the time of the great Reform Bill of 1867 that he "could conceive of nothing more corrupting ... than that two combinations of well-taught and rich men ... should compete for ... the support of the working man ... and promise to do as he likes, if he will only tell them what it is". We do not have to continue to prove him right!

I believe it is possible to detect two strong currents in public opinion, which could be driving the next sea-change - and which we should welcome and strive to shape. The first is near universal disenchantment with endlessly restless, impulsive, ill-considered, authoritarian government. Let any politician visit any school or hospital staff-room, any business boardroom, any public or saloon bar, and ask what the assembled company would like next - and the resulting response would deliver a six-word manifesto: "For God's sake, leave us alone!"

The second sea-change is the growing recognition that, for the public services in particular, more spending without more market-oriented reform is a prescription for frustration and national bankruptcy. New thinking here might begin with university finance, where the party's opportunistic opposition to government policy has been incompatible with any kind of strategic coherence.

The need, therefore, is to produce the collective leadership that will be able to tackle persuasively this wide-ranging agenda, not negatively - as some have put it - "in united opposition to the government", but positively, in partnership with the widest possible cross-section of the electorate.

This must be done - fortunately, as required by the rules as they now exist - without undue haste. It was only the urgent need for the unanimous choice of somebody to lead us into the imminent election - as Michael Howard did, however narrowly, with great courage and commitment - that justified crash action at that time.

This time we need, and can afford, to think more deeply about the choice of an individual who will be able to relate directly with the wider public and, to that end, to enlist and manage, as first among equals, a broadly based leadership team of all the talents.

Lord Howe was Chancellor of the Exchequer (1979-83), Foreign Secretary (1983-89) and Deputy Prime Minister(1989-90)

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