By Ashley, Jackie
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 129, No. 4507
The seaside towns on the English south coast are safe again, left to the scudding autumn seas and the murmur of genteel voices in lounge bars and tearooms. The late-night plotting, the snatched affairs and the hangovers are now just a memory. But has anything changed? Already, most people can hardly remember anything that happened at the 2000 conferences -- except, perhaps, that Tony Blair got a sweaty shirt.
Yet there have been significant developments. The Lib Dems embraced a fairly leftish policy programme; Labour, under fire, held its nerve. And the Conservatives . . . well, what was all that about? This was the week the Tories tried being nice. We saw the calm, ever-reassuring face of Michael Ancram, the party chairman, rather than the sneering, angular phizogs of, say, John Redwood or Lord Tebbit. We heard about inner-city regeneration, social agendas. Michael Portillo was so nice that it was almost impossible to remember how the country had cheered when he lost his seat.
Why such a sudden turnaround? It is not as if the Tories do "nice" very well -- when you look at the faces of some of the representatives, they exude "nasty". But Tory strategists have woken up to the rebirth of the Project. The Project, you will remember, was the grand plan devised by Blair and Paddy Ashdown to form a full-scale coalition, bringing two Lib Dems into the Cabinet after the election and leading, the Lib Dems hoped, to electoral reform that would entrench a centre-left coalition and turn the Tories into a protest party of the right. What went wrong was Labour's over-mighty majority.
Blair continued to nurture the idea. He held a meeting with Ashdown and Roy Jenkins six months after his election victory to discuss the possibility of sacking two of his least favoured Cabinet ministers in favour of Menzies Campbell and Alan Beith. The grass roots of both parties hated the idea -- so much so, in Labour's case, that it was quietly dropped. Ashdown, feeling betrayed, quit the game. We can expect more revelations about the extent of his negotiations with Blair in Ashdown's memoirs, to be published next month,
So what of Blair now? His conference speech was peppered with those good old socialist touchstones: solidarity, fairness, radicalism. It was enough to make old Labourites blub into their bitter. Roy Hattersley declared proudly that Labour had come home. But Blair still nurtures his dream of an anti-Tory century.
Charles Kennedy, realising the hostility that Ashdown's enthusiasm for new Labour provoked in his own party, is playing a quieter game. We won't be hearing much from him about the Project. But, behind the scenes, the Project is alive and kicking -- and stands a much better chance of reaching maturity this time around than in 1997. Kennedy and Blair get on well--better, if anything, than Ashdown and Blair did. Perhaps it is a generational thing: they chat cheerfully about David Bowie -- something it is hard to imagine Ashdown doing. …