Magazine article The Spectator

The State Is Creeping Back

Magazine article The Spectator

The State Is Creeping Back

Article excerpt

IF A WEEK is a long time in politics, three months in the summer seems like an age. Was it really only April when the Tories were in power? Since then, how have they been doing as Her Majesty's loyal opposition?

As in business, a leaner outfit can be a fitter one, but Tory revitalisation, evolving new, truly Conservative policies, fundamentally different from Labour yet popular with the electorate, will necessarily take four to five years. Voters will warm to an opposition focused in its tasks and clear in its aims, but the parliamentary party and the constituencies have to be 100 per cent supportive or the Conservative party could disappear.

While the Uxbridge by-election victory will be a boost to party morale, William Hague's immediate responsibility, on which his team and all Tories can unite, is to oppose the government in and out of Parliament. We have now seen both front benches in parliamentary action and, in the reduced prime ministerial Question Time, for example, Mr Hague and his team have proved tough and tenacious. Despite their depleted ranks, the Tories have the front-bench team to make some big hits. Tony Blair - whose obsession with world leader trips and personal appearances has left him edgy and less effective at the dispatch box - is reminded constantly that he is answerable to the House of Commons.

As the `European question' is far from resolved, the shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Howard, will question Robin Cook's every move. Brian Mawhinney can overwhelm Jack Straw; Gillian Shephard, shadow Leader of the Commons, is more than a match for her counterpart, Ann Taylor; and Harriet Harman might as well pack it in at the prospect of facing up to Iain Duncan Smith. Peter Lilley as policy supremo is a masterstroke: a combination of Rab Butler and Keith Joseph, full of exciting ideas and the ability to translate them into serious, detailed policy - as his proposals on social security showed. Cecil Parkinson, hitherto the best party Chairman since Freddie Woolton, sounds even stronger today.

If the election rout may still be favouring the government, events (to quote Harold Macmillan's `events, dear boy, events') and the hubris of a party unused to office, will bring opportunities for Mr Hague. The sheer size of his majority will create problems for Mr Blair, unable to reward more than a handful of his MPs with ministerial posts and tied down by the Mandelsonian credo to stifle individuality.

For all the manifesto promises of `no personal tax increases', there were 17 tax rises in Gordon Brown's first Budget, all of which affect 'persons'; interest rates have gone up three times since the election and there is a time-bomb ticking away under pensions.

Devolution is in trouble from Labour MPs and so is the Welsh Secretary personally with at least one back-bench colleague. There is a shambles over the London Underground, and the TUC's John Monks has started his push back into No. 10. (Espresso and croissants to replace Harold Wilson's beer and sandwiches?) And, would you believe it, there are allegations of sleaze, corruption and mishandling of personal interest declarations flying around against Labour MPs and ministers? One might ask, `What's new?'

Labour has begun to revert to statist solutions -- creeping Europeanism, spending other people's money, interfering with personal lives and freedoms - all of which will soon grate not only on the Tories' natural supporters but on the electorate, as was shown at Uxbridge. …

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