WILLIAM HAGUE opened a fresh front in the Tories' battle with Labour yesterday by mapping out a new social policy agenda for his party.
The deliberate shift of emphasis follows criticism that the Tories had abandoned the centre ground by appealing to their natural supporters on issues such as law and order, asylum-seekers and Europe.
Mr Hague said yesterday: "This new Conservative agenda of devolving power to local people, institutions and communities shows that we have listened and learnt, and that we trust the instincts of the British people. It shows that we are not just interested in a healthy and strong economy, but also in a healthy and strong society too."
The Tory leader insisted that his party now had "the energy and the ideas to tackle the deep-seated social problems of our country".
The pre-election manifesto unveiled by Mr Hague yesterday, "Believing in Britain", includes more than 100 policies which will form the main planks of the programme on which the party will fight the next general election. The key points are:
The tax cuts guarantee announced last October is watered down to a pledge that "in all normal circumstances we will reduce the burden of taxation". In a recession, vital public services would take priority. But tax cuts are "economically right and morally right".
Public spending would rise in line with the 2.5 per cent growth expected in the economy - lower than the 3.3 per cent increase planned by Labour.
"We will plan for increases in public spending above inflation on a sustainable basis," Tories pledge. "We will be able to deliver lower taxes, not stealth taxes."
A Council of Economic Advisers would advise the Chancellor on the balance between spending and taxes to recommend a prudent approach.
Tories would continue to allow the Bank of England to set interest rates and would grant "real independence" from the Government. The party would reform IR35, the "tax on IT consultants", to stop the brain drain of key workers.
Verdict: The Tories are right to dilute their promise to cut taxes whatever the state of the economy. But they still need to show how they would balance the books, and find some convincing answers to Labour's claims that they would cut public spending by pounds 16bn a year.
The Tories would keep the pound for the next parliament - the so- called Sterling Guarantee. Domestic law would be amended to prevent European Union law overriding the UK Parliament. "Reserved powers" would be retained on issues such as defence, taxation, education and health. Any further transfer of Parliament's powers to Brussels would need approval in a referendum.
EU treaties would be amended by a "flexibility" clause so that any member state could opt out of new EU laws outside the single market which it saw as against its national interest. Tories would support "reinforced co-operation" under which small groups of countries could integrate more closely, but "we will use our veto to stop them in cases where their action would damage our national interest".
Verdict: Tories believe Europe is their trump card. But doubts remain over whether they will be able to turn the general election into a referendum on the single currency.
Tories would free universities from state control by giving them a pounds 1bn endowment from sales of radio wavelengths and future privatisations. They would be allowed to spend the interest and raise money to expand. Universities would set their own student numbers and staff pay levels. "Using one-off gains in this way would not only free the universities from dependency, it would also be better value for the taxpayer than simply using asset sales to reduce government debt."
Every school would become a "free school", with heads and governors in charge of admissions, discipline, uniforms and pay policies. …