The Conservatives must be there to pick up the pieces when Labour fails to deliver on its grand promises for education. That was the message from Stephen Dorrell, shadow education and employment spokesman, to this year's Conservative party conference in Blackpool.
Summing up at the end of a question-and-answer session on education and employment, he said: "Labour don't have a snowball's chance in Hades of delivering on the huge expectations they have aroused in education." It was the Conservatives' task to be seen to call Labour to account and, when they failed, "to be there to convince people we will deliver for them and their children".
Mr Dorrell refused to be drawn on the specifics of the education policy on which the Conservatives will fight the next election.
When one questioner asked how the party would replace the Assisted Places Scheme, he declined to give "a hurried reaction ...on the back of an envelope". Another, asking about policy on nursery vouchers, was told: "I haven't asked the boss yet, " presumably a reference to William Hague.
But the ground on which Mr Dorrell and his team will conduct the battle with Labour over the coming months is clear. They will continue to pursue the Tory themes of variety and choice of schools, championing the institutional freedom exemplified by grant-maintained schools, and attack what they see as the centralist and over-prescriptive policies in Labour's White Paper, soon to be a massive Bill before Parliament.
Mr Dorrell said the proposed planning system, under which each school had to submit a plan to its local education authority, which in turn had to submit a plan to the Secretary of State, promised to be "a huge new paperchase".
This was centralised planning, old Labour-styl e. "Labour wants to give back power to the man in Whitehall," he declared. "We believe parents and pupils and teachers should have the power in education. "
Conservative spokesmen will also concentrate their fire on the Government's response to the Dearing Report on higher education, where ministers are known to be at odds with much of their own party.
Labour's policy of abolishing maintenance grants and introducing #163;1,000 tuition fees would have a damaging effect on students from low-income families and did not achieve continuity between further and higher education, Mr Dorrell said. It was "a dog's breakfast", a deal hurriedly hatched with the Treasury before the summer recess.
The question-and-answer session, in which questioners seemed to have been carefully selected to cover a variety of views and topics, suited Mr Dorrell's style. As in a television studio, he sat in a comfortable chair at the front of the platform with the chairman of the session. He answered in a relaxed and well-informed way, without giving hostages to fortune.
Thus he met a question about the Tories' commitment at the last election to "a grammar school in every town" with the smooth statement: "I do not believe any unified system should be applied in every locality; I want to see a system based on choice".
He was also careful to emphasise that he was in favour of good comprehensives - "and there are many good ones". On the matter of standards, Mr Dorrell is reluctant to be drawn on whether they are going up or down. (He had told a fringe meeting earlier in the day that there was always a Golden Age in education and it was X minus 25 years, where X equalled the present).