McTernan on politics

“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” Tony Blair’s most
famous soundbite was forged when as shadow home secretary he was
facing up in the Commons to Michael Howard. Blair’s genius was to
find a political language which reconciled Middle England’s
concerns with the values of the centre left. Reaching new
supporters without selling out your base is crucial to electoral

Roles are reversed now as Michael Howard, being appointed leader of
the Conservative Party by acclamation, assesses how to drag his
party from the slough of despond to which two consecutive Labour
landslides have condemned it. The choice he faces is the same one
that ultimately – and fatally – undermined his two predecessors,
William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. Does he aim to please the
supporters he has or does he expand his party’s appeal? Former
Republican president Richard Nixon gave some excellent advice to
leaders of conservative parties – “run to right to secure the
nomination, then run as fast as you can back to the centre to win
the election.” That is easier said than done in the UK, given that
the centre ground of politics is occupied by New Labour. And for
those who find Blair and Brown too market-oriented there is a
left-ish of centre alternative in the form of the Liberal
Democrats. That leaves the government’s right flank exposed,
tempting the Tories to create “clear blue water” between themselves
and the government – precisely the strategy that did for Hague and
Duncan Smith.

So what is Howard likely to do? Rachel Whetstone, one of his most
trusted advisers, has argued for the slogan “give power back to the
people”. In that light anticipate many more attacks on bureaucrats
in local and central government and the NHS. The policy
prescription will be further extension of the “passport” scheme for
education and health proposed at the recent Conservative Party
conference. These proposals will be condemned by the government as
thinly veiled voucher schemes which will offer a subsidy to the
middle classes who already use private provision but will need a
wallet-busting top-up from most ordinary families. Howard is
unlikely to care about that line of attack as consolidating his
base against further erosion must be his highest priority. Equally
class-based will be the Conservative position on tuition fees – a
promise of no top-up fees will be funded by holding university
access to a third of school leavers. The losers as expansion is
held back will be working class children – again not the Tory core.
This much is clear. The question which remains intriguingly open is
whether Labour will allow this to happen unchallenged, or will
Blair – in an attempt to maintain his “big tent” politics – tack to
the right to block Howard.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.