The Man at the Heart of Attempts to Revive Conservatism May See Compassion as a Political Imperative, but He Is No Fan of the Centre Ground

By Richards, Steve | New Statesman (1996), October 17, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Man at the Heart of Attempts to Revive Conservatism May See Compassion as a Political Imperative, but He Is No Fan of the Centre Ground


Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)


During the dying days of the Major administration, when it was being buffeted by events, lacking coherent themes, David Willetts almost singlehandedly tried to inject more philosophical life into Conservatism. It was a hopeless task. A tidal wave of internal divisions and sleaze swept over any attempts to give the Conservatives fresh ideological purpose. So much so that Willetts himself was forced to resign from the government for being a bit-part player in one of the political scandals that beset Major's government.

Beyond losing a ministerial car, the departure from government made very little practical difference to his career. He continued to be a key adviser to Major until the election and is at the heart of William Hague's attempts to revive the party. Indeed the continuing influence of Willetts and his close ally, Danny Finkelstein, who is in charge of policy development at Conservative Central Office, stands as a warning to those who interpret last week's events in Blackpool as a dramatic shift in Conservative thinking. Willetts, an employment spokesman with an influence that extends beyond his brief, and Finkelstein have been reflecting on the nature of Conservatism for several years. Last week did not represent a return to the drawing board.

Nor was it a dramatic switch in political direction. Such an interpretation mistakes tone for substance. Willetts had discussed Michael Portillo's speech with him before it was delivered, along with Francis Maude's, which also stressed the need for a more compassionate Tory party. Likewise, he was involved with Hague's speech, which picked up some similar themes. But none of these headline-grabbing addresses was a bid for the centre ground. Willetts stresses the importance of free markets, the need for the state to be reined back further and a support for traditional British institutions, which he considers to be under threat from Labour's constitutional reforms.

The precise policy implications arising from these principles have yet to be worked out, but they do give the Tories a base from which to attack the elusive target of new Labour. I have spoken to several despairing former cabinet ministers, who say there is not much point in attacking Tony Blair when he is carrying out most of their policies. Chris Patten is said to be reflecting long and hard about how "Blairism" should be opposed, and has yet to reach firm conclusions. Willetts is less reticent. He says his only doubts are about the new Prime Minister's true political character: is he a radical or a pragmatist?

"Rhetorically he's very radical," says Willetts. "If you go through the language, its intellectual roots can be traced to continental social democracy and Clinton's Democrats. But we just don't know how much of it Blair will be able to implement in practice. He may well find it very difficult because of the internal contradictions of what he's trying to do."

What does he see as the "internal contradictions"? "If you take the constitution, they are approaching it like a DIY fanatic taking over a rambling old house. They get the toolbox out and set to work without understanding the building they have occupied. They take something out which they then find was quite useful to the house and have to implement corrective change after the first set of changes. So if you take the second chamber: Labour is doing the easy bit by abolishing the voting rights of hereditary peers. But then you are left with a chamber based solely on patronage. Nobody believes that's right: electors choose a chamber, not the government."

Do the Conservatives now support or oppose the abolition of hereditary peers? "William Hague is willing in principle to contemplate reform of the Lords. But Labour haven't addressed the fundamental problem which is, if you are to have a second chamber how do you reconcile it with the powers of the Commons? They are pulling bricks out without recognising the whole structure. …

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