Comment: First steps on a long journey to an unknown destination

Both Blair and Ashdown are leaders who don't take risks unless they are fairly sure they can pull them off
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DON'T HOLD your breath. The joint statement by Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown on their determination to reshape the political map and challenge the "destructive tribalism that can afflict British politics" is a unique and, indeed, remarkable document. It may even prove to be an historical one. But the boldness of the two leaders continues to be in the ends they seek.

We are still in the opening phase of a very long game. For this is a project in which both leaders are taking immense risks and are doing so without much support from some of their closest colleagues. Indeed there have been times over the past 48 hours when Mr Ashdown feared he could lose the leadership over this latest initiative. Some of the allies he trusts most advised him against the move. Much of his party, instead of rubbing its hands in glee at the prospect of more power, is deeply worried. Some of them are walking around Westminster with heads held low as if they have just had their seats taken away from them.

At a meeting of his senior MPs yesterday, it was agreed that any extension of the Lib/Lab Cabinet committee's remit must be "tightly controlled". The mood was hardly celebratory. As one of the Ashdown entourage observed, "It's been a week of hard hats and flak jackets." An even bumpier ride is anticipated by the Ashdown camp when the party's Federal Executive meets on Monday.

Blair, too, is moving alone. Not even his ultra-loyal Press Secretary, Alastair Campbell, is an enthusiast about his leader's flirtations with the Liberal Democrats. The negative views of his most senior cabinet ministers are well known. I have also spoken to several New Labour MPs from the 1997 intake and detected no great enthusiasm amongst some of them. "The Liberal Democrats seem irrelevant" was the closest one came to endorsing the strategy. Imagine the uproar if Ashdown and one or two Lib Dems had been appointed to the Cabinet, as many speculated would have happened by now.

Such a development always struck me as a fantasy at such an early stage. Now we know just how big and premature a fantasy it has been. Given the reaction to widening the remit of a cabinet committee there would have been a mutiny in the ranks of the Liberal Democrats if Mr Ashdown had suddenly become Secretary of State for, say, Defence.

What we are witnessing is a very long-term project of uncertain outcome. Parties are fragile beasts and cannot be remade overnight. Relations between parties are equally sensitive. Consider how long it has taken to reach the current situation.

When Blair became Labour leader in July 1994 there was an eruption of articles predicting a dramatic realignment on the centre left. They were justified in the sense that privately and, indeed, publicly, Blair was quite open about his objectives.

In a candid Fabian lecture in 1995, he spoke of the need to repair the division on the centre left. The view is echoed in this week's joint declaration which states as its aim "the ascendancy of progressive politics in Britain". Here we go again. The language is of aims and objectives. They have remained constant and dramatic. But let us look at what has actually happened in the four and a half years since Blair became leader.

Liberal Democrat MPs continue to sit on the opposition benches, deeply ambivalent about their leader's strategy. The key pledge of Blair's, to hold a referendum in the first term, will probably not be met. Blair, himself, has still to reveal whether or not he supports electoral reform. Most of his cabinet is opposed. That is not to say that two leaders have not made bold, significant strides. They both have.

With underestimated subtlety Ashdown moved his tribal party (his activists are more tribal than Blair's) away from their perverse attachment to "equidistance" between Labour and the Conservatives. Without needing the support of the Lib Dems in the Commons, Mr Blair has set up the cabinet committee and backed PR for next summer's Euro elections. Much progress there has been, but it is of a slow and subtle nature, the opposite of the apocalyptic language which often accompanies talk of the Blair/Ashdown relationship.

So what will happen now? Over the next few weeks there will be much discontent, especially amongst the Liberal Democrats. But do Ashdown's internal opponents really want to reject a whiff of power for the luxury of impotent opposition? Anyway, a new kind of politics will unfold however loud the protests within either of the parties.

In Scotland the voting system will almost certainly deliver a hung parliament next summer in which parties will be forced to work together. A forgotten element of the Cook/Maclennan proposals for the House of Lords is that a reformed second chamber should reflect the votes cast at a general election. It remains likely that parties will have to co-operate more fully in the Lords whenever the leap to wholesale reform is made.

Politics is changing, but both Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown are leaders who do not take risks unless they are fairly sure they can pull them off. They are right to try for the rewards could be great. Overmighty after the 1997 election, Labour MPs should pause and reflect on what happened in the Eighties. Margaret Thatcher's dominance was the product of an informal anti-Labour alliance. For the SDP, especially under the leadership of David Owen, the worst outcome would have been the election of a Foot or Kinnock government. Labour was assaulted on two fronts, leaving the ground clear for Thatcher.

As long as Labour and the Liberal Democrats are co-operating, the Conservatives face the same doomed isolation that afflicted Labour for 18 years. I write of the two parties "co-operating". It is a vague notion but for now it will have to do. Possibly the election after next will be fought under a more proportional system. That depends on a referendum being won in the meantime. If that happens, in eight years' time, there may be a more formal coalition of the centre left. There are lots of "ifs" and "maybes" in this project.

Yesterday I was talking at Westminster with a senior Liberal Democrat who had reservations about the timing of the latest initiative. Briefly Roy Hattersley joined us and greeted the MP by observing mischievously that they should shake hands "now we're both members of the same party". The great wordsmith will no doubt produce 10 articles on this theme over the next 24 hours, but he is leaping miles ahead.

There will be no merger. For many years there will be no formal coalition. It is still possible that the bold experiment implodes before very long. More likely, Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown are reflecting the political mood as well as shaping it. But they are on a journey which has only just begun.

Neither of these leaders knows where this journey will end.