Tories sound unsure as the balance tilts: Conservatives face losing their recent monopoly on ideas. Donald Macintyre looks at the response to Labour's advance

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Indy Politics
IAN LANG is not the highest profile of Tory politicians. But in an important and interesting Swinton lecture at the weekend Mr Lang became one of the first seriously to address the burning Tory question of the day: how do we deal with Tony Blair?

He didn't put it like that, of course - he didn't once mention Mr Blair by name. But the unmis takeable sub-text of his speech was how the Tories can move forward against an increasingly self-confident Labour Party in an electoral epoch in which, as Mr Lang himself said, 'all the old dragons are slain'.

Something quite fundamental may be happening in British politics. Neil Kinnock's heroic and necessary efforts between 1983 and 1992 were devoted to junking the baggage the party had acquired in those dark years that immediately followed the 1979 election; the perception grew - even in the Labour Party itself - that this meant signing reluctantly up to an agenda that was fundamentally Tory; on Europe, on defence, on trade union ballots, and on state control for example.

It helped to make Labour look much more electable than had seemed possible in 1983; but the Tories were still calling the tunes; and Labour had been forced to dance to them. This was unfair in many respects; while many of Mr Kinnock's opponents only grudgingly accepted the changes in the hope of winning power, Mr Kinn ock and his fellow modernisers believed they were right for their own sake. But the Tories could still claim with justice that they were in charge of the agenda. Mr Lang was quite right to claim this as ground won on the 'political battlefield' from Labour.

It is suddenly not quite so clear that the Tory front line, to borrow Mr Lang's metaphor, is still moving inexorably forward. Suddenly it is the Tory ideological trumpet that is sounding an uncertain note.

It is surely no coincidence that ministerial speeches are beginning to fill up with references to community, 'high and stable' employment, and even social 'partnership' - or that there is so much interest in the pamphlet on 'Civic Conservatism' produced by David Willetts, easily the brightest thinker in the party's 1992 intake.

Not all of this, of course, flows immediately from the imminence of Mr Blair's accession to power, and his own emphasis on the power of society to bring about the fulfilment of the individual. Michael Howard, for example, stressed the importance of community - albeit in relation to local voluntary action, something with which Mr Blair also feels genuinely comfortable. Kenneth Clarke has been bravely re- emphasising since before the Labour leadership contest the importance of a strong welfare state.

There are nevertheless some problems for the Tory party in all this. First, in a party in which on Europe, at least, the centre of gravity is widely seen as having moved to the right it is still not clear the left can win the argument. To take one example, Stephen Dorrell, the centre-left Treasury Financial Secretary, has already run into political difficulties by examining whether dividend tax reform - already identified as a goal by Mr Blair - could be used to reduce short-termism in industry.

Secondly, as Mr Blair was at pains to point out at the weekend, if they start to borrow his language, even to the extent of pledging to restore the social fabric of Britain, then they have to explain what they have been up to for the last 15 years. Notoriously, Chris Patten tried - and failed - as long ago as 1988 to convert his Prime Minister to the concept of 'social Thatcherism'.

Moreover they face a painful dilemma; they can attack Mr Blair's emphasis on society as the old authoritarian collectivism dressed up in suitably modern language; or they can say, as they appear increasingly to be doing, from Michael Howard to Douglas Hurd, that community and the civic society are essentially Tory ideas. But they cannot easily do both.

Finally, to the extent that the consolidators - such as Ian Lang, and in still more sophisticated form Douglas Hurd - persuade their colleagues not to perpetrate change for change's sake, then it leaves Mr Blair with his theme of change and 'national renewal' as the radical, challenging the national order as Margaret Thatcher did in 1979. And it worked for her.

At the very least all this vindicates Mr Blair's determination to set out his ideological framework before being elected rather than leave it until afterwards. For the first time since 1979 it looks as though the right are no longer the monopolists in political ideas; When Mr Lang asserted 'ours remain the dominant ideas in British politics' it was perhaps not fanciful to detect the merest hint of insecurity.