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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2006, 14:39 GMT
From Churchill to Toynbee?
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Calls from David Cameron's adviser to ditch Winston Churchill's ideas on the welfare state seem designed to infuriate Conservative Party traditionalists.

Conservative leader David Cameron
Mr Cameron wants symbolic change

Indeed, there is a suspicion that frontbencher Greg Clark's suggestion that the modernised party should look to the Guardian's Polly Toynbee rather than the wartime leader is designed to do just that.

It is being seen in some quarters as just the latest attempt to find a symbolic issue which will finally and irrevocably re-brand the Tories as the centre-ground, liberal Conservatives Mr Cameron insists they now are.

The references to Polly Toynbee (the mere mention of whom will send many Tories into a lather) is particularly being seen as part of that provocative symbolism.

What Mr Clark is suggesting, however, is entirely in line with the direction of travel mapped out not only by David Cameron but to an extent by Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague - even, arguably John Major - before him.

And Mr Cameron, who has already claimed his top priority is the NHS, is expected to endorse the comments when he makes a speech at the end of this week.

Powerful symbol

But a large part of Mr Cameron's campaign to re-brand the Tories is about spelling out in the clearest possible terms things that have already been accepted by modernisers in the party, but never suggested as core beliefs.

Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Churchill helped found welfare state

Suggesting Churchill's approach to the welfare state should be abandoned is certainly a powerful symbol of the change Mr Cameron wants embedded in the party.

As minister in the 1906 Liberal government, Winston Churchill actually helped create the foundations for the current welfare state by backing a universal insurance system covering health and unemployment, he even initially appeared to embrace the 1942 Beveridge report on welfare.

However, he then refused to commit to it in the 1945 election campaign and, later, hardened his line against the Attlee government's welfare state creation.

He is widely seen as proposing, as Mr Clark argues, that insurance should merely provide a safety net to protect the very poorest in society. And that is certainly the view attributed to traditionalists in the Conservative Party ever since.

Social policy

Ms Toynbee, however, has focused on successive governments' failure to tackle inequality and pressed the notion of relative rather than absolute poverty which has grown, even under Labour.

And she has welcomed any acceptance by the Tories that the "trickle down effect" of wealth from the richest to the poorest did not work.

Mr Clarke says: "Churchill's safety net is at the bottom, holding people on subsistence level, just above they abyss of hunger and homelessness.

"It is social commentator Polly Toynbee who supplies imagery that is more appropriate for Conservative social policy in the 21st century".

Yet it is probably the case that mainstream Tory thinking abandoned the safety net approach many years ago, although it remains live and kicking on the right.

But Mr Cameron and Mr Clark now want the change set in stone with the new approach becoming the guiding principle behind Tory welfare policy.

If that again helps the symbolic abandonment of old-style, traditional Tory policies, so much the better as far as they are concerned.

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