By Kampfner, John
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 134, No. 4736
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. He has also pledged to stick to Labour's still-paltry budget for international development, 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.
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. …