At dinner the other night with a leading conservative thinker, I asked the question many of us have been pondering more and more worriedly of late. “Can you give me one single positive reason why any true Tory should vote Conservative at the next election?”
My friend thought for a while and then said: “Michael Gove.”
“Yeah, yeah, apart from Michael Gove,” I said, reminding my conservative chum that this was almost as obvious and pat an answer as “Well they could hardly be any worse than Gordon Brown.”
At which point my friend was stumped. Like me, he’s a natural Tory, truly, madly desperate for a Conservative government to get into power and act according to true Conservative principles: limited government, low taxes, liberty, etc. Also like me, he sees no sign whatsoever that the current Opposition has any understanding of what true Conservative principles might possibly be.
Even the Gove point is moot, I fear. I have tremendous respect for the Tories’ shadow schools secretary. He’s super bright, indefatigably (and naturally) charming, sound on a lot of issues that matter (Islamism, for example, as you’ll see if you read his incisive Fahrenheit 7/7) and, unlike most of Dave Cameron’s inner circle, he was not born to the purple. As the adopted son of a decent, hard-working, but by no means wealthy Scots couple who made tremendous sacrifices to give him a good education, Gove understands far better than any wallpaper-heir or landed Old Etonian can the case against excessive taxation and intrusive government.
Despite my reservations, if the Tories were to come clean now and say: “Look, we might as well admit it. We’re a bunch of neo-Blairite water-treaders who won’t do anyting to undo any of the damage wreaked by New Labour, except in one area. Education. By the end of our term of office, you shall have schools and universities to which – for little or no money – you will not be at all embarrassed to send your children,” I still think I might just be persuaded to vote for them.
So why – given that Gove is the shadow secretary responsible for education, and given that he is always speaking up for higher standards and against dumbing down – do I remain unconvinced by his supposedly bold new plans for sweeping ’supply-side’ reform on the Swedish model?
Because even when they’re trying to be tough and radical, Cameroon’s Tories are so irrevocably craven and lightweight they just can’t help pulling their punches. No, I don’t necessarily believe the stories in one of the paper’s yesterday that the Tories education policy is “in disarray” – for the Ed Balls spin machine is a powerful and terrifying thing. But I do believe if you’re going to come up with a bold new plan, as Gove has, to encourage the creation round Britain of thousands of new schools, you’re shooting yourself in the foot right from the off if you announce that you don’t want any private operators making money out of it.
What, in the name of Margaret Thatcher (or Adam Smith if you prefer), is wrong with making a profit? How, pray, will anyone be persuaded to go to the hassle and expense and risk of establishing a new school if the only reward is their own virtue? Is there any more effective way to kill a policy before it has even begun than to hedge it with rules which, let’s face it, have absolutely nothing to do with giving our children a better quality of education, only with the Tories’ increasingly ridiculous terror of being seen in any way to come across like enthusiasts of the capitalist system.
You’ll notice the “Pt 1″ in the headline. That’s because I’ve a nasty feeling that for stories about the inexorable decline of ideological conservatism in Britain, Dave Cameron’s Tories are going to be the gift that goes on giving.