Peter Lilley MP has been an MP since 1983 and was Secretary of State for Social Security 1992-7. A loyal follower of Margaret Thatcher, he argues that Tony Blair has returned back to promoting a more decentralised model of public sector management as she and John Major had tried to implement, due to the costly failures of Labour’s initial command and control model of public sector reform. He argues that the Conservatives must be aware of, and adapt to this shift if they are to win power at the next election. He is Chairman of the Globalisation Policy Group.
Not a week goes by without the Prime Minister pledging to ‘stick to his radical reforms of the public services’. Tony Blair presents himself as the Captain Kirk of reform, determined to boldly go where no politician has gone before.
Yet the truth is rather different. The reverse gear that he famously claimed not to possess is fully engaged. Rather than creating a new legacy, he is in large measure simply restoring the legacy he inherited and which, in his first Parliament, he himself dismantled or aborted.
In the wake of his victory in 1997 Tony Blair abolished what he derided as the ‘internal market’ in the NHS, he scrapped fundholding GPs and deprived patients of the right to choose which NHS hospital treated them; in Education he scrapped Grant Maintained Schools, restored them to Local Authority control and abandoned the previous government’s plans to give all schools a status similar to Grant Maintained Schools.
Now he is recreating what are virtually Grant Maintained Schools, relabelled Trust Schools, largely free of Local Authority control and extending that status to all schools as John Major promised; he is restoring patient choice, recreating independent NHS hospitals as Foundation Hospitals, reviving GP Fundholding relabelled as Practice Based Commissioning and reintroducing an internal market in the NHS.
His much vaunted ‘radicalism’ merely involves laboriously restoring (under new labels) what he had abolished and returning to the path mapped out by the previous Conservative administration. He is unlikely to be remembered for a legacy of radical reform – more as a modern day Duke of York.
But it is far from certain that he and, more important, his Party have truly repented or even recognised why their original direction failed. Unless and until they do, there is a danger that they may slip back onto the path of centralism and abandon their present welcome programme of restoring the model of choice, competition and decentralisation that they originally dismantled. So it is important to examine why Blair followed this strange trajectory. There are also lessons to be learned which will be relevant for a future Conservative government.
Blair’s problem was that much of the potential benefit that should have flowed from the huge injection of cash into the public services was largely dissipated by his early reversion to centralisation – changes that were costly and disruptive to introduce and a recipe for ongoing inefficiency once in place.
To his credit, Tony Blair did eventually realise that more money would only translate into more and higher quality services if he reverted to decentralised provision driven by user choice not command and control. Yet he has to pretend that he has been pursuing a consistent course of public service reform.
The danger is that the public will conclude that if the first two doses of this medicine of radical reform have not worked, why do we need another dose? Professionals working in the public services, battered by constant upheavals, find the rhetoric of apparently endless ‘radical reform’ even less appealing.
It is vital, therefore, to explain Blair’s current path is not ‘more of the same’, still less an endless process of revolution. Much of the upheaval over the last two Parliaments was the result of a wholly unnecessary detour. Conservatives should support the current reforms because they are getting us back on the path we set out towards the end of the last government.
Doubtless a future Conservative government will need to refine what we inherit. We will be building on what Blair leaves behind (and which we both initiated and will have helped to restore). We will be offering modest changes not permanent revolution. That is a message that may be a bit disappointing to some right wing commentators who chant the mantra of radical reform of the public services as mindlessly as the Trotskyites used to call for ‘perpetual revolution’. Nonetheless it is likely to reflect what our country needs and what our potential voters want.
A full copy of the ‘Tony, Duke of York’ pamphlet can be found here.