CANDOUR is a dangerous affliction for Conservative MPs. Speak a little sense about government spending and the bullet comes whizzing from central office. It struck Howard Flight last Thursday, as he joined the ranks of the martyrs.
Michael Howard’s quickness on the draw is remarkable. It reputedly took the Tory leader less than a minute to sack Mr Flight as deputy party chairman for suggesting his party may seek to shrink, rather than expand, the size of the state.
This makes three points: that Howard is ready to be ruthless with anyone who damages the party line. He is serious about striking a contrast with himself and Tony Blair, who clings on to errant ministers at all costs.
But it shows that the basic tenet of Conservatism - small government - dares not speak its name in this election campaign. This not an indictment of Howard’s draconian leadership, but the state of British public debate.
Flight is a successful merchant banker, and outspoken businessmen seldom make a successful transition to politics. In business, it is enough to succeed. In politics, the commodity is truth: it must be carefully rationed, stretched and distorted.
Like many others before him, Flight did not understand this. To the business world, the case for small government is manifest: the prosperous nations have the lowest tax. But the logic of a takeover prospectus is different to that needed for elections.
To win power, politicians must secure votes beyond their base by misleading the public about their intentions and achievements. Labour has made this into an art form and the Tories are doing the same.
Flight stupidly admitted this unspoken rules to the Conservative Way Forward group, infiltrated by a Labour mole with a hidden tape recorder. "Whatever the fine principles," he said, "we have to win power first."
It was political lunacy to contradict official policy at election time - so he deserved to lose his post. But to be expelled from parliament as well is a punishment meted out to no Tory frontbencher in post-war politics.
Michael Mates, Neil Hamilton, David Mellor - none of the ministers who disgraced the Conservative government in the last decade through financial and personal misdemeanours were punished by losing their seat as well as their job.
When Allan Stewart quit the Scotland Office in 1995 after wielding a pickaxe at an anti-motorway protester, he was allowed to keep his Eastwood seat. So is venality and yobbishness acceptable - but talking about radical Conservatism beyond the pale?
Howard remembers only too well the decadence of his party’s frontbench in the John Major years where no fewer than 11 government members quit after a series of sexual misdemeanours. Discipline has never been a Tory strong point.
This is what Howard is trying to end. Scores of Tory MPs have for the last eight years been openly attacking various leaderships - believing they, personally, have the answer for the party’s revival and that the leadership is going down the wrong path.
In the old days, being sacked from the frontbench was no more serious than being suspended from school. MPs knew they would be back - they just had to wait until the next leader came along.
Now, Howard has sent a message: you can lose your seat as well. Game over. This will certainly silence scores of Tory MPs - many of them in the Shadow Cabinet - who share Flight’s dismay at Howard’s plans to outspend Labour every year.
This sets a dangerous precedent. Labour has long been deploying volunteers on what it calls "black ops" missions to record what Tories say when the are amongst friends. The tape is then handed to a Labour-supporting newspaper.
Howard has set new rules: any MP caught breaking from the Letwinite orthodoxy can be fired. And almost no Tory MP, perhaps not even Letwin himself, thinks a Conservative government should really be promising to outspend Labour.
So with enough gin & tonic, hidden tape recorders and beguiling researchers, Labour could dispose of half the Shadow Cabinet before polling day. It’s a great game, which Labour will certainly join.
All this makes a sad point. There is a good case for smaller government - if the Conservative party won’t make it, then who will? Across the free world, the political pendulum is swinging towards personal freedom, and away from government control.
Just as the Thatcher government won the argument about liberalising the economy, Blair seems to have won the argument about taxation in the 2005 campaign. Taxation is now seen as the equivalent of public good.
As Shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin has already handed Blair the terms of his political surrender - in the form of his spending plans. Having failed to make the popular case for cuts, he will match Labour’s spending boom on health and education.
Like a Saudi wife following her husband, the Tories will stay just a few steps behind a step behind Labour’s spending plans - implicitly accepting the Blair principle that the government is virtuous, and the public is selfish.
Last month Danny Kruger, one of the brighter members of Tory central office, stood down as Sedgefield candidate for calling for a period of "creative destruction" in public services - ie, that a dreadful hospital should be knocked down, and replaced by a better one.
This isn’t an obscure neo-conservative theory: it’s the basic law of human progress. And it would be a demonstrable improvement on the current UK system where failing schools are kept open and kids are forced to attend them.
Last month, John Reid, the Health Secretary, said he would allow poor hospitals in England to close because "no patient would be forced to go to a hospital to keep it open". He was talking about creative destruction.
The tragedy of British elections is that rational discussion goes out of the window - each party tries to misrepresent their rival’s arguments. It is a time for every member of every party to watch every word they say.
This is the election word game. Both Flight and Kruger were explaining the perennial low-government philosophy - thrown up by the Scottish Enlightenment and used to bring prosperity and stability to countries all over the world.
But the Conservatives have failed to develop an election-proof vocabulary for their guiding idea. In the last eight years of Labour rule, it has failed to popularise the case for small government. It is too late in the day to start now.
Flight’s thought crime may be shared by most of his Tory MPs - but Howard is right to say it is time to be as organised now as Labour was in 1997. At election time, discipline is more important than ideology.