INSIDE OUT: Playing the 'lack of integrity' card won't be enough. The Tories need to develop an alternative vision - and it must address the matter of public services

INSIDE OUT: Playing the 'lack of integrity' card won't be enough. The Tories need to develop an alternative vision - and it must address the matter of public services - As the last Parliament slumbered towards the summer recess, Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said something interesting and original. Yes, I have also doubted that such a thing was possible - but he did!

by Andrew Neil, publisher of The Business and Scotsman newspapers
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As the last Parliament slumbered towards the summer recess, Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said something interesting and original. Yes, I have also doubted that such a thing was possible - but he did!

He announced that it was his party's policy to abolish eight government departments and to stand for smaller but more effective government. The cull would include big departments of state like the DTI. It was the first time since Kennedy became LibDem leader that he had departed from his social democratic roots and donned the mantle of the Liberal radical.

I doubt that Kennedy really means what he says: he is too mired in the social-democratic tradition of tax-and-spend to become the voice of smaller government. But it was a break with his previous approach and represented the beginnings of a radical alternative to Labour.

The few who noticed gave him credit for an original intervention, then asked: Why aren't the Tories saying this? It's a question we'll be asking again as Britain's autumn party conference season beckons.

The Government is vulnerable as never before. Lack of trust has become for Tony Blair what sleaze was for John Major's government. It is corrosive: a suspicion that Britain was taken to war with Iraq on a false prospectus has been fuelled by the shady dealings surrounding Dr David Kelly's suicide and the ongoing revelations of the Hutton inquiry.

Distrust of the government is spilling into the politically more important arena of public services: we've paid the extra taxes, the Government says it's spending billions more on schools, hospitals and transport - so why are our public services still so dire?

It took the Tories a long while to realise this was an open goal. But in the weeks leading to the summer recess, Iain Duncan Smith ended every intervention at prime minister's questions with: 'You can't believe a word the prime minister says.'

It was without subtlety or sophistication. At one stage IDS could barely open his mouth without uttering his 'can't believe' slogan. I asked Steven Norris, the Tory candidate for London mayor and a canny electioneer, if such repetition was wise. 'He's a junior army officer,' replied Norris. 'He'll keep on saying it until somebody tells him to say something else - or say the same thing in a different way.'

And there's the rub. The Kelly suicide and its fallout was one of the most devastating single events to hit a modern British government. Yet the Tory and LibDem attack has been pathetic. The amazing feature of British politics at the moment is not that the Tories have at last drawn roughly level with Labour in the polls but that they are not 10 to 15 points ahead.

Imagine if the Kelly suicide had happened under the Tories. They would have been flayed alive daily by the likes of Robin Cook, whose forensic skills would have laid bare ministerial lies and deceit, just as with the Scott inquiry into Matrix Churchill and other Tory scandals of the Major years.

But IDS's interventions have had all the impact of a wet noodle, and nobody in the Tory shadow cabinet seems to have Cook's ability to make life miserable for Government. The Hutton inquiry will reinforce voters' impressions that this is an untrustworthy, slippery, spin-ridden government. If the Tories cannot capitalise on that, they are doomed to opposition for the foreseeable future.

But playing the 'lack of integrity' card more effectively will not be enough. The Tories need to develop an alternative vision that voters can understand - and it must address the matter of public services. Ironically, their future is contained in a recent piece of seminal research by the European Central Bank (ECB).

The ECB report revealed how gross waste and inefficiency are endemic in European public sectors. Taxpayers get a raw deal and economic growth is being reduced, with dire consequences for employment and living standards.

The report's startling conclusion was that, on average, the 15 EU states could provide the same level of public services they do now for 27% less public spending - but only if they increased the efficiency of their public services to the levels of Japan or America.

Such savings would allow for a dramatic downsizing of government from around 50% of gross domestic product to 35% - an indication of the staggering inefficiency of European welfare states. If Britain's public spending was as efficient as America's, the Government could spend 16% less while still producing the same level of public services.

At a time when British taxpayers are seeing little benefit from the extra taxes they're paying, this is surely a goldmine for Britain's opposition parties. It brings us full circle to Kennedy's tentative toe in the water of smaller but more efficient government. More for less - it's not a bad slogan for any party hoping to win power. It remains to be seen if either of Britain's two main opposition parties has the wit to exploit it.

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