A photo with auntie is not enough

Westminster - Kirsty Milne

When William Hague returns, tanned and cheerful, from teaching Ffion to sail off the coast of Maine, he will find the Central Office pointyheads in a tizz. There they are, toiling to rebuild Conservative credibility. They nurse a policy review. They set up "Listening to Britain" meetings from Bradford to Torbay. They plot for Hague to present his millennium vision to an enraptured party conference.

And what happens? Arriving back from their holidays, the pointyheads are faced with a leaked memo about Ffion's "Project Hague" and a sheaf of newspaper cuttings implying that the sum total of Conservative renewal will be photo stunts of the leader with his Lottery-winning aunt.

Happily the pointyheads - Danny Finkelstein, head of Hague's private office, and Rick Nye, head of research - are used to adversity. Former disciples of David Owen, they learnt about being on the back foot in the days of the rump SDP. Hague, in training for a judo blue belt, must be equally used to picking himself up off the floor. Once the current spasm of ridicule has subsided, there are brighter skies ahead. In his summer reshuffle, Hague took the novel step of giving jobs to people who actually knew something about their new brief. The former Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe took home affairs, the ex-GP Liam Fox got health, the welfare expert David Willetts went to social security and Oliver Letwin, former privatisation supremo at N M Rothschild, joined the shadow Treasury team. The policy review was put in the hands of Andrew Lansley, a former head of research at Central Office.

Now that Hague has the back-up, where's the Big Idea? Aides have been pushing him in the direction of the presidential candidate George W Bush, though even Hague's advisers concede that some of Bush Jr's enthusiasms, such as "faith-based" welfare projects and "abstinence education" for teenagers, would not comfortably cross the Atlantic.

Does the Conservative Party need a Big Idea? Yes, says the former Tory MEP Graham Mather, "because pragmatism is not enough in the complexities of modern policy formation, because reliance on personalities is never enough and because the party needs a brand image". In a European Policy Forum paper to be published at the beginning of September Mather calls on his party to adopt a new philosophy of "costed enforceable rights".

Most Tories are apt to regard the concept of "rights" with distaste. The notion smells of republic and revolution, of Tom Paine and the tricoteuses. It evokes an assertive populace challenging the muddle-through pragmatism so dear to traditional Conservatives.

But Mather believes that rights could form the basis of a new Tory individualism suited to the 21st century. "Rights in the public sector," he argues, "are the equivalent of contracts in the marketplace: an indispensable means of defining expectations and . . . commitments."

For Hague to embrace the idea of costed enforceable rights would show that the Tories had truly changed, says Mather: "Instead of saying to people, 'We'll tell you what to do, we'll spend your money,' we would be saying, 'We take you seriously as voters and as citizens'."

By moving on to the territory of trust and transparency, Conservatives would be keeping up with the times. Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" paid off for the Republicans in their 1995 congressional victory, attracting John Redwood's interest. Labour borrowed the idea for its "pledge card". But in only one case did the party make clear how the pledge would be paid for - the New Deal for the young unemployed, funded by the windfall tax on the privatised utilities.

Mather believes that the principle of costed rights - borrowed from two US law professors, Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein - would give the Tories "a tool for the automatic audit of the government's performance". What kind of NHS treatment are people entitled to? What help can they expect in old age, as more and more pensioners have to sell their homes, while the government looks like rejecting the recommendations of its own Royal Commission on Long-Term Care?

Willetts might explore the idea of a "care guarantee", leap-frogging Labour's "pension guarantee". Redwood could argue that motorists are paying £18 billion a year in taxes but not receiving a minimum level of service or a guaranteed level of investment in public transport.

The idea of costed rights raises the spectre of hypothecation, or earmarked taxes. Tories should welcome this and build on it, says Mather. "There is a rich and detailed debate going on about the TV licence fee in the digital age - what services should be provided to viewers and at what cost. Yet there is no equivalent debate on transport."

The mere mention of roads will evoke memories of the Citizen's Charter and John Major's much-mocked motorway cones. Costed rights sound dangerously close for comfort. But Mather is unabashed. The problem with the Citizen's Charter, he maintains, was a lack of philosophical underpinning. "It was too mechanistic. It came from nowhere, without detailed political preparation, so it was easy to machine-gun." Others may worry that the notion of "enforceable" rights will breed a US-style litigation culture. Not so, says Mather. "In the private sector, consumers' rights are legally enforceable. Yet you buy your car, groceries, insurance policy - and how many people have you had to sue this year?"

Costed rights are not the answer to every Tory woe. But they will give the pointyheads something to chew on. And they could rescue Hague from a future of perpetual photo poses with auntie.

Steve Richards returns next week

This article appears in the 30 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Gordon Brown, the great feminist