Good riddance to John Major’s Tory government; a warm welcome to New Labour’s new conservatism.
Both the New Labour Party and ITS oppositions’ conferences were much as you would expect. The Conservatives promised tax cuts, despite the fact that they will not be in any position to implement them for some time. And the highlight of the Labour Party conference was the prime minister’s appeal to Conservatives to join him and his party, all the while explaining to a beaming audience that the Tories had been responsible for every diabolical action except the assassination of President Kennedy. The Liberal Democrats, however, seemed to abandon a certain amount of nonsense and made a move to its right, towards New Labour.

Putting all this out of our minds, however, about half-way through the parliamentary term of office is a good time to judge New Labour’s performance. For if we made our judgements of political parties based on what they say, rather than what they do, we would be judging some idyllic existence with eternally decreasing taxation, empty gaols and hospitals providing immediate medical attention.

In order to come to a conclusion on the performance of New Labour, it is necessary to cast our minds back to John Major’s government and the early years of this decade, just as it was necessary when judging the Thatcher years to remember Old Labour’s winter of discontent and the early months of 1979.

The great recession that destroyed so many jobs, closed so many businesses and took the homes from hundreds of thousands of families started in September 1989. Major’s government was not even prepared to admit that a recession was happening, much less to do anything about it.

On several occasions, I spoke to chancellor Norman Lamont in private and pointed out the devastating effect that this recession was having on the construction industry. I am sure many leaders of this industry did the same. The only response I received was a denial of any recession.

“I have access to figures that you do not see,” said Lamont, “and there is no recession.” As it happened, I had access to figures he did not see: the state of businesses of my family’s company. There was a recession, a hefty recession fuelled by rising interest rates. When finally Major did admit – too late – that there was a recession, he pronounced it “shallow and short”. In desperation, I wrote that the only aspect of this recession that was shallow and short was chancellor Lamont.

This government seems to admire profits, and be intent on encouraging a growing number of people to make a profit

Today, we are treated to the spectacle of Lamont and Major blaming each other in their pathetic self-justifying memoirs. In 1997, New Labour came to power with a vengeance. Today, party loyalty hardly exists; the party that benefits you is usually the one you favour. There can be little doubt now that the construction industry has benefited from that change of government. We have, I suppose, been lucky to get Nick Raynsford as our sponsoring minister, a man who seems interested in construction rather than seeing his position as an irksome step on the ladder of promotion.

A sensible campaign has begun to deal with cowboy builders; Egan’s Rethinking Construction, whatever reservations one might have about it, is at least an attempt by a naturally conservative industry to consider whether by reform it might improve its performance; and the Ministry of Defence is now considering a new and greatly improved purchasing policy.

Indeed, the minister responsible for prime contracting, on reading a piece I wrote on the subject in this magazine, telephoned me himself to invite me to visit at my convenience, to discuss it with him – he even offered to come and see me. The attitude of ministers is, I believe, the litmus test of a government’s performance. This attitude contrasts to the arrogance, indeed hatred, that many of Major’s ministers displayed towards journalists and, even more so, towards industrialists in whose ears Major’s Mansion House speech attacking the “fat cats” of industry should forever ring.

This government seems to admire profits, at least, and be intent on encouraging a growing number of people to make a profit. The only real failure is the idea to finance public projects with private money. Private finance initiative projects have never really got off the ground with either the speed or the success that was expected. Perhaps this is an area of our industry that really does need government attention.