BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 03.11.02

Film: DAVID GROSSMAN Reports on the direction of Conservative policy and the difficulties facing Iain Duncan Smith's leadership of his Party.

DAVID GROSSMAN: Iain Duncan Smith said we shouldn't under estimate the determination of a quiet man - actually the Tories are making so little impact on voters right now he might as well be in a silent movie. The party conference may have cheered and waved - but opinion polls suggest the public just hasn't heard him. At their conference last month the Conservatives unveiled twenty five new policies in an effort to demonstrate a new sense of direction and win back an audience. Iain Duncan Smith wants to rid the Tories of their nasty party image and become the champion of the vulnerable. But when you examine these policies you get an uncanny sense of deja vu - it's like walking into a movie you've already seen - because out of the twenty five, sixteen policies are actually straight out of the last Tory manifesto. And where they have come up with new new policies - for example, in health, by placing the emphasis on a greater role for the private sector, critics say they are simply reinforcing the old image of the party. So, does the Tory strategy lack coherence? ARCHIE NORMAN MP: It's no good just having a selection of policies. We've got to set it in a broader context, demonstrate that we really do care above all about those people today who want to look after their communities and make a contribution. ANDREW LANSLEY MP: What is important for the Conservative Party at the moment is to articulate policies which reinforce a sense of who we are, what we stand for and where we're going. GROSSMAN: One thing you can't criticise the Tories leading man for is not trying. Iain Duncan Smith has covered hundreds of miles in an effort to spread the message that the Tory's script has changed. He's not trying to become a matinee idol but instead wants his party to come across as trustworthy and relevant - both qualities vital to winning back the hearts of voters. Any actor will tell you a good script is everything - and it's pretty much the same in politics. One potential blockbuster that Iain Duncan Smith is now offering is right to buy. It tells the tale of IDS battling to ensure that council house tenants keep the right to buy their homes and extend that right to Housing Association tenants. But hang on, isn't that a bit of a familiar plot? It's actually a re-make of the same policy that William Hague fought the last General Election on, but the first Conservative right to buy policy was actually introduced by that leading leading lady of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher, way back in the eighties. Modernisers within today's party say that re-launching this policy, albeit with a different cast, does nothing to get across the message that today's Tory party has changed. LANSLEY: At the Party Conference, David Davis announced a policy of extending the right to buy to Housing Association tenants. What I think most people didn't remember was that we announced that policy in 1999 and again in the year 2000, so the issue is not so much to have policy but that the polices that you announce - and they don't have to be a very large number - support a sense of what you're trying to achieve, a sense of direction. NORMAN: The danger of simply talking about the right to buy is that we remind people that we're sticking by the policies of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, nothing wrong with that, it was a great policy at the time, very popular, and of course we should stick with it today, but it's more than that we've got to be seen now to be addressing the real problems of today's housing stock, of people who live on inner city estates, of people who live in council houses that are very badly maintained, of people who are looking to buy or find somewhere to live that's affordable to them in the South East especially and can't find it. GROSSMAN: Iain Duncan Smith's latest stop is a youth project near Exeter. He's here to spread the main theme of his leadership - helping the vulnerable, at the same time as helping himself to a spot of curry. But critics say that worthy theme can be lost because some policies like right to buy have an entirely different flavour. True, the Tories now say they will invest the proceeds of sales in new social housing - the recipe though, say some worry, still doesn't fit with helping the vulnerable. Former Shadow Cabinet member Edward Garnier fears that it could actually harm the vulnerable. EDWARD GARNIER MP: If you have been brought up in a poor family, a not very well off family in a rural village, the chances of being able to buy a house in that village are non existent and therefore the provision of Housing Association housing is vital so that people can stay in the communities that they were brought up in and want to work in. If the Housing Association houses are sold away well then the stock of what is loosely called affordable housing, is diminished. GROSSMAN: After lunch there's no rest for IDS - he's got to say his good byes and rush off for the next location. But the Tory's former pollster says that frantic activity isn't alone enough. They need to come up with a theme and stick to it - a process rather like song writing. NICK SPARROW: Whenever anybody's putting a song together you have to think about you have to start with the individual notes and you have to make sure that all those notes hang together and make a song that everybody will recognise is, is of a particular type and understand that that is what that song is all about. I think you have to be very, very careful with the individual notes that you use to make that song if individual notes strike people as being strange or out of place and something like right to buy simply on it's own given that a lot of people won't really understand where we've got to with right to buy, and what the new proposals are, just remind people of the old Conservative government. GROSSMAN: So are Iain Duncan Smith's new policies just William Hague's in some different packaging? Well, not entirely. In amongst the older ideas are some grains of innovation. At the Party Conference the Shadow Health Secretary did actually unveil something that was brand new fresh out of the box. Dr Liam Fox outlined his thinking on health and it involves a much greater emphasis on the private sector - he said he was very impressed with the health care system in Finland, where patients who go private can reclaim sixty per cent of the cost back from the State. But critics say this policy simply serves to reinforce the negative image that many voters already have of the party - that it's just there to help middle class people with money opt out of sub standard public services, rather than trying to make those public services better for everyone. NORMAN; When we talk about caring for the vulnerable we equally have to be able to explain how our policies in health are going to help the vulnerable first. Now if you produce a policy which is clearly not accessible to people who don't have savings of their own that is - that's not it doesn't mean it's the wrong idea, it means it's not sufficient, it doesn't knit together with what else we're saying. The flagship of our health policies should be reform of the NHS not just enabling people to go outside the NHS. GROSSMAN; It all seems so long ago now doesn't it? William Hague accompanied by his chief strategist Andrew Lansley. Now a backbencher, Mr Landsley says that talking about helping people with money opt out of the NHS is a big mistake. LANSLEY; It does concern me that we spent a great deal of time and effort discussing health policy in the run up to the last election, seeking to escape from the trap that the Labour Party would otherwise put us into, which has only been concerned with whether people can opt out of the NHS and buy private medical insurance. The issue is how do we raise overall standards of health care in this country. GROSSMAN; On the road again this time to a public meeting in Plymouth. This activity is partly designed to exorcise the adjective that haunts the Tories - nasty - but modernisers say that when the party does have the opportunity to act in a non-nasty way they instead slip into old habits. Tomorrow the Tory leadership will instruct its MPs to vote against allowing non married couples to adopt. Former shadow cabinet member Andrew Mackay though is ready to defy this instruction. ANDREW MACKAY; I think it's difficult to explain and understand why we're doing it, I think it's very healthy that in the Conservative Party no doubt the same as the Labour and the Liberal Parties that we have different views on this issue. I believe passionately in the freedom of the individual to express himself or herself as she sees fit, I think the State or political parties telling people how to behave is something fairly abhorrent which normally only happens under fairly restrictive regimes of which most of us would not approve. LANSLEY; If we can achieve a greater pool of adopted parents by making it possible for unmarried couples to adopt, then that I think is the right policy; my problem is that if the Conservative Party corporately as it were is seen as resisting that, we all understand that the motivation is a good one which is to defend the institution of marriage and not see it undermined, but the effect is a poor one, GROSSMAN; One change that some in the party now seem to agree could be necessary is that of the leadership itself - the quiet man is having to face down the whisperers on his own back-benches. Over the past week several Conservative MPs described the atmosphere to me in the parliamentary party as being febrile. One MP said, according to some newspapers at least to have serious concerns about the leadership, is the former Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Andrew Mackay. Is the atmosphere among Conservative MPs, do you think, relaxed at the moment towards the leadership? MACKAY; Well inevitably when we are not yet moving forward in the polls, when what I thought were extremely good policies which were brought forward to the Party Conference have not yet been understood and accepted and supported which I'm sure they will be by the party, by the country at large, then I think there's obviously some uncertainly, we're at that stage in the Parliament. GROSSMAN; Is it a bit jittery? MACKAY; I think there are legitimate concerns and that is healthy in a democracy,. SPARROW; People make their own minds up about political leaders very early on. They would then look to the media or to the Party itself to either confirm or confound that belief. And I think Iain Duncan Smith did not appear to be a very good leader to a lot of swing voters to start with so there was that impression. And that will simply be confirmed by the fact that, well the media don't think he's any good either and half the party don't think he's any good. And that is a very difficult position to come back from. GROSSMAN; Making the Tories look like a modern party again and get their voice heard is tiring work - and constant speculation about his leadership makes it doubly difficult for Iain Duncan Smith. But many inside his party believe that renewal will come only when he succeeds in getting the Tories back in tune with today's voters.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.