Don't forget about me. John Redwood reflects on how the Conservatives can learn from the electoral disasters of the past, bearing in mind that politicians must nevertheless look forward

After the Landslide: learning the lessons from 1906 and 1945

David Willetts with Richard Forsdyke

The events of the past week have left me more time to review and to think about the future of British politics. Two and a half years of opposition have taxed my critical abilities. Now I can be more creative and wide-ranging, able to comment on how we can and should be governed. A good starting point to reflect on the battered state of our democracy is this pamphlet about past and present Conservative attempts to fashion an opposition out of the ruins of landslide defeats and to go on to provide the government again.

David Willetts's pamphlet has been sensationalised by some reviewers, eager to find a Tory war story where none exists. I picked up the work fearing that I would read a pessimistic tract saying that we could not win without radically changing our present position. Instead, I found a scholarly and balanced account of how the Conservative Party had recovered from electoral disasters before and why it had taken so much longer in 1906 than in 1945.

As a long-lapsed historian turned businessman turned politician, I find the past a useful guide to where we are, but not a route to the future. It is difficult to understand the present if you ignore the past. It is impossible to recreate the past in the future, since no two patterns of human events are ever replayed precisely.

The main proposal that emerges from the pamphlet is that an opposition party should offer ideas - a big picture, not detailed policy proposals. It is certainly true that in 1950, and again in 1979, the Conservative opposition succeeded in creating a sense of a different approach without specifying in advance every decision that would be needed. In 1979, the electorate knew that a Thatcher government would trust free enterprise more and state control less, but there was no word of privatisation, a set of policies developed later. In 1950-51, the electorate knew that a Conservative government would dismantle many of the wartime and socialist controls of the 1940s, but again there was no detailed set of measures.

The work behind the "Right Approach to the Economy" of the seventies was, however, in many respects very detailed. I remember sitting on the public expenditure committee in opposition, where we faithfully constructed line-by-line budgets for each governmental year, but did not publish them. There was an understanding that, while we needed to win a general battle of ideas in the media, we also needed to equip the senior politicians of the day for the complex task of governing. Work on privatisation had been started by a small group before the 1979 election victory, but it took time to persuade the government that it could be done in practice.

The same is happening today. The "common sense revolution" sets out crucial themes about freedom, nation and family that are central to Conservatism. Popular policies that illustrate how these themes would be developed in practice are also launched.

Willetts recommends that the party should emphasise the degree to which it has changed compared to the party that lost so heavily in 1997. This is not difficult. We have a new leader. Only two members of the current shadow cabinet were members of the cabinet at the time of the landslide defeat. All of us are interested in the future, not the past. There were many achievements during the Conservative years. They were well explained at the time and were rewarded by the electorate until the mid-1990s. There is no need to dwell on what happened several years ago.

There is, as Willetts claims, no point in trying to copy the government. Conservatives did not win in 1951 by promising to spend and tax more than Labour, or by promising to nationalise more things than Attlee. We did not win in 1979 by promising more price and income controls than Labour or a further visit to the IMF following overspending. In both cases, we won by promising more freedom and more prosperity through having trust in free enterprise. Similarly, there is no point today in offering more spin-doctors and more fairy stories than Labour tells. Labour will lose when people are fed up with the huge gap that exists between promise and reality. We must offer something different: more honest government, more spending on doctors and less on spin-doctors.

The pamphlet argues that appearing split in public is very bad news. Indeed, it suggests that this is why Conservatives found it so difficult to win in the early years of the 20th century. There is some truth in this historical explanation, but it does not make a universal rule of politics. It is obviously better if a party appears united, but it is not essential. No one thought that Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party was united. The big divide between wets and dries was written about often. Few think that Labour is united: the press is full of discussion of the divide between Blairites and old Labour.

As Willetts concludes, what matters is that you keep your nerve. We have been here before. Sometimes we won back much more quickly than pundits thought likely. Many have written the premature obituary of the Conservative Party. But Blair knows that we are not dead. The opinion polls were wrong by 15 per cent in the European elections and may well be wrong again. Willetts shows that in politics anything can happen, and often does.

I would not have predicted my own removal from the shadow cabinet. Few predicted the Conservative victory in the European election against the tide of the opinion polls. I look forward to the ride ahead. It is bound to be more exciting than most pundits think.

John Redwood is a Conservative MP