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18 April 2005

Nightmare on Downing Street

If the Conservatives under Michael Howard really did win the keys to No 10 next month, what kind of

By John Kampfner

It is May 2009. A general election has been called. Michael Howard, the Prime Minister, has just handed over to his successor, David Cameron, after four years in Downing Street. If this had come to pass, what would Britain have lived through? How much would have changed?

The manifesto that the Conservative leader launched on 11 April provides some clues, but only some. The policy prescription is sketchy. The tax-and-spend arguments beg more questions than answers. But a combination of precedent, instinct and announcements suggests that a Howard government would reverse the very mild and stealthy redistribution of income that Labour has presided over. The default Tory approach to the NHS and to state education would be that they are not up to the job and that ways have to be found to circumvent them. The default approach to the role of the state would be to reduce it where possible, in the name of freedom and deregulation. The beneficiaries of Conservative largesse would be those parts of Middle England that might use public services but would rather go private given the chance. Comfortable pensioners would see provision improve roughly in line with a reduction in emphasis on the elderly poor. As for “foreigners”, asylum-seekers, immigrants, gypsies and their like, a Howard administration would compete with tabloid papers in a cycle of grievance that we have not suffered for several decades.

The atmospherics – the “give us our country back” tone of Howard’s statements – provide a clear indication of the kind of government he would like to bequeath. The most invisible issue of the campaign, Europe, may provide the first and most consistent form of confrontation. Howard says he will hold a British referendum on the EU constitution within six months of taking office. With a government urging a No vote, the result would be a foregone conclusion. Rejection would, whatever the protestations to the contrary, very likely lead to negotiations on withdrawal. The Europeans would have no incentive to be amenable to a British request for “associate” status – being part of the single market but not much more. The UK would be even more marginalised than in the dying years of John Major’s rule, during his six-month period of “non-cooperation” over the beef ban. Howard would talk up the malevolence of Brussels, playing to a sense of “injustice”. Ultimately, however, he would have to cut a deal, and the consequences for the UK economy would not be beneficial.

Diplomatically, Howard would be in a bind. He would move quickly to ingratiate himself with a US administration that did not appreciate his unconvincing lurch from ardent supporter of the Iraq war to critic. A Conservative PM overcompensating for past transatlantic “lapses” could come under strong pressure to support a new American military adventure. Having broken with Europe, he would have no other significant allies on which to balance UK interests. On international development, he has pledged to stick to Labour’s still-paltry budget, but would lack the international clout to lead a more coherent strategy for Africa, which at least Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have tried.

Unlike the instant decisions that often govern foreign policy, economic change is a more gradual process, as much a product of management skill as ideological direction. The Conservatives have tied themselves to Labour spending plans in health and education, and for all the heated claims and counter-claims over black holes in these plans, the proportion of public spending of gross national product would vary only slightly in a first Tory term. The greater ambition for tax cuts, for which the sacked Tory MP Howard Flight was punished, would follow in a second term.

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Labour has in recent days shifted its attacks. After accusing the Conservatives of having a hidden agenda of cuts, it is now focusing on irresponsibility and mathematical ignorance or deceit. But it is the allocation of resources, rather than the size of the pot, that reveals most about Tory first-term priorities. They have concluded that Labour’s focus on means-tested credits for the poorest pensioners is humiliating and complicated. Their pledge to increase pensions in line with earnings rather than savings – just as activists such as Jack Jones and Barbara Castle advocated for years – marks a return to greater universalism, a perfectly legitimate but different approach. At the same time, they deny they would scrap the pension credits for the hardest-hit, but they almost certainly would allow them to wither away.

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To pay for some of their commitments, the Tories have pledged to abolish the New Deal, one of the most ambitious of the policies introduced in 1997. Parts of it have been inefficient and costly, but it has given training and work experience to hundreds of thousands of long-term unemployed, not to speak of the broader benefits in terms of crime and social exclusion. On other areas, the Conservatives are vague. Unlike in 2001, they no longer promise to abolish the minimum wage. But the experience of the US Republicans suggests it would either be frozen or raised below inflation. The same could apply for a number of welfare benefits and, presumably, for the plethora of child credits introduced by Brown. The Tories know they cannot repudiate the targets for cutting child poverty, but they have said little to suggest it would remain a serious project.

The left’s critique of Blair – that he has done too little in addressing the wealth gap and has been far too timid in introducing social legislation that tempers the market – remains as valid as ever. But what little has been done would almost certainly be undone. Howard’s pledge to withdraw from the EU social chapter would allow him to reverse measures such as equal protection of part-time workers and ensuring that Bank Holidays are not counted as part of annual holidays. The reprioritising of personal freedom over fairness of outcome would particularly resonate in public services. Tory plans to pay for private schooling as long as the cost does not exceed a place at a state school, and to pay half the cost of a private hospital operation are perfectly coherent and legitimate, but would favour the section of the population that already knows its way around the system – the middle class.

There is one area where the Tories have inadvertently aligned themselves with progressives on the left. Bizarrely, for a party that until recently regarded constitutional reform as anathema, they are now calling for a substantially elected House of Lords and a smaller House of Commons, with stronger select committees and more time to scrutinise legislation. Policies such as these, however, tend to be the first that are ditched when opposition turns to government. Elsewhere, the proposal to give parliament a free vote to overturn the hunting ban is predictable, as would be a free vote on reducing the time limit for abortions, something a third-term Labour government would come under similar pressure to offer. On other social issues, the Tories appear reconciled to a more liberal consensus. In a recent interview with a gay magazine, Howard apologised for his party’s past support for Section 28, which he introduced in the 1980s, banning the “promotion” of gay lifestyles in schools. Yet the profile of the shadow cabinet, predominantly public school-educated men in their fifties and sixties, suggests values somewhere between non-metropolitan and anti-metropolitan, using the meaningless and catch-all term political correctness to denounce shifts in society they disapprove of. This might not amount to much more than rhetoric, however, as recent governments have learned to tread carefully. It is on crime and race issues that the Conservatives have made such an impact in the campaign. Given the support they are receiving in the tabloid press, and the lead they are enjoying on the issues in the polls, nothing would suggest any backtracking in government, even at the risk of antagonising some MPs on the more liberal wing of the party. Where the parties differ is more on the tone than in the detail of the policies. Howard has sought to reinforce in voters’ minds a subliminal link between asylum, immigration, crime, terrorism and insecurity. He would feel under few constraints as prime minister, engaged in an auction of rhetoric with the newspapers about the perceived unfairness felt by the indigenous population. If his attempts to withdraw from the 1951 UN refugee convention and to find ways of extricating the UK from the European convention on human rights were opposed by the courts, he would use this resistance to bolster his populist standing. The same would apply to crime. As home secretary, he was proud of his record in raising the prison numbers and revelled in denouncing judges for chal-lenging him on sentencing and other decisions.

All the forecasts above are predicated on what would be an almost unprecedented election reverse for a ruling party. The a Conservative victory might be remote, the chances of a working majority more remote still. Governments are con-strained by global forces in many areas of economic and social policy. The machinery of Whitehall and pre-assigned spending would act as a further brake on sudden change. Iraq aside, the most potent criticism of Blair is his excessive timidity in temper-ing markets with measures that will make a more than marginal change to society. In the media, a Howard government would face fewer constraints. And when frustrated over his scope to cut taxes or to make a difference in complex areas of public policy, there is a rich seam of grievance that he can tap into to leave his mark.