Britain: row over spending cuts hits Conservative election bid

Britain’s Conservative Party is mired in controversy and infighting just days before Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to announce a May 5 general election.

The sudden turnaround in the Tories’ fortunes could not be more striking. Only last week, the Conservative leader Michael Howard was cheered by much of the media for making an “impressive” start to the party’s election bid.

His decision to adopt as Tory policy a racist tabloid campaign against gypsies was greeted approvingly as a sign that the Conservatives were prepared to push official politics even further to the right. The fact that xenophobic diatribes against gypsies and immigrants are no longer the preserve of neo-Nazi extremists, but a part of mainstream politics, was hailed as “liberating.”

Such was the atmosphere in which Howard Flight, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, addressed a 50-strong meeting of the Thatcherite “Way Forward” group on March 23. He began by praising Howard for breaking old taboos. In his anti-gypsy campaign, Howard “has said the unthinkable,” Flight enthused.

“All those politically correct things you couldn’t say—if you said a word about asylum or immigration you were ‘racialist,’ if you said a word about travellers [gypsies] you were absolutely wicked. All the things that common sense Middle England knows are a load of crap, and no one dares speak out—he’s spoken out!” Flight declared.

It was through such means that parties win elections, he continued, and “it’s then about what you do economically when you’ve got there.”

Here Flight regaled his audience with his party’s plans for the economy. As someone instrumental in the so-called James Review drawn up by the Tories, Flight was well qualified to speak on the subject. Launched earlier this month to a fanfare of publicity, the report claimed to have identified £35 billion worth of savings in “non-essential” public spending that could instead be used to finance tax cuts of £4 billion.

Asked if the party would be able to find further savings once in power, Flight suggested this would be entirely possible. As it was, the proposals for cuts in the James Review had been “sieved” for what is “politically acceptable,” he said, so that “the potential for getting better taxpayer value is a good bit greater” than the findings suggested.

Warming to his theme, he continued, “The real issue is, having won power, do you then go for it?” As regards spending cuts, “everyone on our side of the fence believes passionately that it will be a continuing agenda ... this is an ongoing exercise,” he said.

Flight’s bluntness won applause from his audience, but created despair amongst the party leadership. Within hours of the meeting, his remarks were splashed all over the Sunday Times newspaper, under headlines that the Tories were secretly planning to cut public spending far beyond what they had said.

Only last week, the Tories rejected Labour claims that their spending plans would lead to significant cuts in public services. Then, Howard had argued that a Conservative government was not planning to make cuts as such, just to increase public spending more slowly over the next six years by cutting back on “waste.” This meant a 2 percent growth in spending under the Tories, compared to Labour’s projected 3 percent target, he said.

Now, Howard declared that Flight’s remarks wrongly suggested “the Conservative Party is saying one thing before an election and intends to do something else afterwards.” Within 24 hours, Howard had sacked Flight as deputy chairman and stripped him of the party whip—effectively barring the Conservative member of Parliament (MP) from standing as the party candidate for his Arundel and South Downs constituency.

Howard’s claims are rubbish. Conservative plans to target “wasteful” spending are but a euphemism for cuts in public services, and John Redwood, the Tories’ deregulation secretary, has openly described the party’s £35 billion “savings” package as only a “down payment.”

Flight has sought to challenge the abrupt termination of his parliamentary career. After consulting lawyers, he announced he would seek an extraordinary meeting of his 2,000-member local Conservative Association, which he argued was the only body constitutionally entitled to sack him as candidate.

Flight has some backing. He is considered the second wealthiest MP in parliament, and his local Conservative Association is one of the richest in the country. As an investment banker in the City of London, Flight was working with leading Tory corporate officials to raise funds for the Conservative election campaign.

Rumblings of discontent at Howard’s actions spread. One senior Tory was quoted in the press stating, “I suppose there is an excellent precedent for crucifying someone on Good Friday, but ending Howard Flight’s political career was completely over the top,” whilst former Tory cabinet minister David Mellor said Howard’s response was “outrageous, cruel and heartless.”

Writing in the Independent on Sunday, the former Tory cabinet minister Lord Tebbit warned that the row could “inflate a storm in a teacup to a political gale. Politics is about judgement as well as logic, and many Tories will question if Flight should be virtually expelled from parliament.”

By mid-week, Flight’s supporters announced that they had gathered the necessary 50 signatures to force a special members’ meeting of the Arundel and South Downs Association. If this takes place in a fortnight, as expected, the fracas over Flight’s sacking will continue at least halfway through the Conservative election campaign.

The outcome of such a meeting is by no means certain. There is concern amongst many Tories that a vote by the local Association to retain Flight would plunge the party even deeper into open warfare, and scotch any hope of a Conservative revival.

It has been suggested that the local party will reluctantly comply with the central office, but that a poor showing in the general election would cost Howard his leadership. Some Tories have charged that Flight is the victim of a sting operation by the Labour Party, which used an undercover “mole” to record the MP’s remarks and then pass them on to a “Labour-friendly” newspaper.

They note that earlier this month, Danny Kruger, who had been selected as the Conservative candidate to fight Blair’s Sedgefield seat, was taped explaining to a seminar how the Tories were planning the “creative destruction” of public services. Kruger was also forced to stand down, claiming lamely that his words were “misinterpreted”—by “creative destruction” he had meant the improvement of public services.

And in Slough, Howard has suspended the local Conservative Association following its refusal to deselect Adrian Hilton as its candidate, after he was sacked by the central office for describing the European Union as a “Papist plot.”

Whatever the involvement of the Labour Party, Flight’s speech was hardly private. He was speaking to a meeting that had been advertised on the Internet, where non-members were invited to participate.

More fundamentally, the furore over his remarks points to the enormous popular hostility to the reactionary social policies being pursued by the ruling elite and all of its political parties, including both Labour and Conservative. None of the major parties can admit the truth—that they are committed to policies aimed at satisfying the interests of a financial oligarchy at the direct expense of the living standards and democratic rights of working people. Instead, they employ lies, subterfuge and, especially in the case of the Tories, the politics of scapegoating.

Labour’s own review of public spending targeted £22 billion worth of savings, which the Tories hoped they had trumped by identifying a further £13 billion. But both parties have disingenuously claimed that their “savings” will not have a negative impact on services.

Much of the media, including those that have leaked damaging Tory statements, wholeheartedly support cuts in public spending. The Sun editorialised March 26 that “plenty of Tories will agree with Mr. Flight that state spending is out of control. It is the burning issue.”

The Times concurred, writing: “It is certainly not a sin for Tories to aspire to lower public spending.” The danger was, it continued, that “although the electorate is certainly prepared to be sceptical about the State, it is far from the stage when it is prepared to abandon all hope for it.”

Flight’s transgression was that, in his enthusiasm to proclaim nothing off-limits, he forgot that when it comes to the health care, education provision and social benefits on which tens of millions of working people depend, it is prudent not to admit as much.