A seismic shift in the political landscape

There is every danger that the Tories will fail to absorb the real lessons of Labour's victory
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Thepeople decided. And they did so with a ruthlessness and certainty that no one, not the man whom it propelled to power, nor his crushed opponents, nor the candidates in improbable seats who never expected to win, had ever envisaged. And in the process Britain demonstrated things, small and not so small, about herself that even she had forgotten. Her common- sense ability, for example, to discriminate between kinds of behaviour lumped lazily together as sleaze. While the voters of Beckenham returned Piers Merchant - exposed in The Sun for his canoodling with a nightclub hostess - on the correct grounds that his aberration, however ludicrous, had nothing to do with his fitness as an MP, the electors of Tatton confounded many predictions and turfed out Neil Hamilton in favour of a good and brave war correspondent who arrived in a white suit and with no politics except a timely mission to clean up politics. And in doing so, triumphantly exploded the introverted myth that running Hamilton as a candidate would not be a liability to a party already on its knees. There was common sense, and for that matter liberalism. Offered the choice between an openly gay Labour candidate and a right-wing Conservative who menacingly exploited his adherence to "family values" throughout his campaign, previously Tory Exeter cheerfully opted for the Labour man by a margin of more than 11,000.

These are telling details of a seismic shift to which few of the old cliches about transforming political landscapes do justice. The outcome promises not only to realise at a stroke the Wilsonian dream - and in his time it was only a dream - of Labour as the natural party of government. Many of the undecideds on whom ministers based their last flickering hopes turned out to be plotting to vote Labour or Liberal Democrat rather than sullenly refusing to admit their intention to vote Tory. And the wipe- out in Scotland and Wales has confined Conservatism, at least for a time, to just the English nation, leaving Labour with the best claim to be the party of the Union. It's ironic, given the campaign which John Major waged against the dangers of devolution, that Labour and Liberal Democrats are now the British parties - while also maintaining a towering majority of MPs in England itself.

Never in this century have the Conservatives, facing a future, as one surviving ex-minister put it yesterday, as a parliamentary "guerrilla army", been so comprehensively detached from their foundations. The determination with which the Tories were ousted is demonstrated by the number of seats in which the Labour vote willingly squeezed itself to ensure a Liberal Democrat victory. The voters wanted to dispatch the Tory party, and they found, as never before, the means of doing it.

The landslide (it seems a pedestrian way of describing a majority of 180) has lessons for the Tories which there is every danger they will fail to absorb in the heat and bitterness of a leadership campaign, but which Ken Clarke, who yesterday declared himself a candidate, will do his best to impart to a party in which the right may prove less dominant than originally feared. There is no sign, for example, that giving Europe a higher profile in the campaign than the economy helped the Tories. Or that outright opposition to the single currency was any help to the Tory candidates who proclaimed it. The procession to the electoral tumbrils of the Lamonts, the Ivan Lawrences, and dozens of others are powerful testament to that. In the main, the Goldsmith experiment was contemptuously dispatched. But the more important question is what the awesome majority means for the Blair government.

First, it gives Tony Blair an historic opportunity for reform. Do the Tory peers, for example, really intend to flout the Salisbury doctrine that a government should be free to implement its manifesto, by attempting to sabotage devolution, or indeed reform of their own House, when the manifesto pledges are underpinned by 419 MPs of the governing party in the Commons? Nothing would better demonstrate their own obsolescence.

But it is also Blair's majority: a majority for New Labour delivered in part because those who voted for him believed he had ditched the party's addiction to the tax and spending spiral. Having recruited it, he isn't about to betray the centre. As the architect of this majority, Blair will, I suspect, be neither triumphalist or tribalist in its use. On Europe, he has stunning freedom to negotiate as he wants. But he also knows that the public is deeply wary of further integration, and that those fears which were exposed in the campaign will have to be heeded.

One of his circle yesterday recollected Hartley Shawcross's infamous remark after Clement Attlee's 1945 victory that "we are the masters now" in order to emphasise that this would not be the spirit in which the Blair administration would be conducted. His future relations with Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats, after their own far from negligible triumphs, remain cloudy: but it surely misjudges his mood to think that he will not want them as outriders at least to the project of reform and social renewal to which he's now dedicated. It is Mr Ashdown's party, after all, which takes the anti-Tory vote share up to a breathtaking 62 per cent.

And all this doesn't mean Toryism with another face, however much some people may hope or fear it does. When Blair said last weekend - in a much dissected remark - that the left should realise that nothing has been ceded in the campaign which can't be recovered in office, he meant something: that the campaign which triumphantly delivered victory, never, even at its most defensive, sacrificed the principles in the programme on which he stood. Fulfilling those aspirations on the NHS, on education, on welfare reform may be only a start. But what a start. The electorate has willed their new prime minister to give them a reason not to be cynical. It won't be easy. But yesterday in Downing Street he looked like a man who wants to do just that. Savour it: history brings few glad, confident mornings like this.