A thriller, but how tough?

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WHAT IS politics about? Is it about big ideas, great human aspirations and fears - or is it about technicalities, the pragmatic delivery of certain ends? The question matters, because it looks increasingly as if the next two years' contest between Labour and the Conservatives will be a fight between politics as philosophy and politics as administration.

This is prompted by Tony Blair's philosophical appeal for change in his first speech as leader yesterday, which contrasts neatly with the managerial changes in John Major's reshuffle. But in a sense, the contrast has to be like this: an opposition is not in the position to do anything; it can only talk. And while the Tories are too soiled by power to sound idealistic, they can still hope to persuade the country that they are experienced managers.

Neither party would accept such a crude distinction, which does not invalidate it. Labour will spend much of the next couple of years trying to sound like efficient managers-in-waiting, while John Major's administration has long been conducting a covert debate about its philosophical purpose. But swing voters will, in the end, either be a little thrilled by Blair, or they will be rather reassured by Major. That is the choice - even in those parts of the country where being thrilled leads you to vote Liberal Democrat.

On the thrill count, the selling of politics as philosophy, Blair does well. As one MP who is not a natural supporter put it, 'We have a star here'. The new Labour leader is like some hi-tech piece of weaponry sitting on the tarmac all sleek and deadly, but which has not actually been in combat yet. He looks impressively dangerous, but we cannot really tell.

He is certainly a clever man, whose brains and toughness are underestimated by Tory strategists at their peril. How was his speech yesterday? It was interesting, it was fine, but he is not yet a great orator. Indeed, there are certain oratorical tricks which should now be discarded by all Labour speakers. We have had enough of repetition. Of repeating things. Of saying them thrice. And I say this to you, you the Reader. We have had enough of people saying, 'let me tell you this', or, 'let us be clear', before every second sentence. Of sentences that have pride in themselves because they have pride in their rhythms.

I carp. Of course I do: there is an honourable living in carping. But during its several high points this was a speech that sent out all the right messages and which was even moving.

Blair hit home when he defended the Labour modernisers on the grounds that 'it is the confident who can change and the doubters who hesitate'. He grasped the audience and held them when he spoke in quasi-religious language about 'the small, broken moments of hope, that forever are worth an eternity of dull despair'. That is the authentic ro

manticism of the left. And he did it too, when he appealed for younger voters: 'Of course, the world can't be put to rights overnight. Of course, we must avoid foolish illusions and false promises. But there is, among all of the hard choices and uneasy compromises that politics forces upon us, a spirit of progress throughout the ages with which we keep faith.' I have not heard the Fabian credo put more elegantly.

The substance of the Blair message was, however, that the party still has a long way to go, that it has hard thinking to do, before it is ready to govern. He would wage war on complacency wherever it existed: 'The Tories have lost the nation's trust. But that does not mean we inherit it automatically.' That was, or ought to have been, an uncomfortable thought for some of the people applauding.

But, after being philosophical in the limelight, Blair must now show himself to be a tough administrator behind the scenes. His first job is to build an effective private office, which neither hides him from the world (as Neil Kinnock's sometimes did), nor lets the political world camp in his office (as happened in Michael Foot's day). He will have to find a role for his deputy, John Prescott, which allows him to wow the faithful, while using someone else, probably Jack Straw, to rebuild the party's campaigning structure.

Then comes the task of ensuring that the party conference is an unalloyed success in the autumn. A lot of fixing of motions and individuals has already happened to ensure that the spotlight is immovably fixed on Blair, rather than on rows about policy. After that come the Shadow Cabinet elections and Labour's reshuffle. And then comes the hard part.

The hard part will require Tony Blair to prove himself, in the phrase once used memorably of Chris Patten, 'the liberal thug'. It will be about sackings. It will be about adopting unpopular positions as well as popular ones. It will be about seeing, and brutally prising open, the divisions between those Tories insistent on trying to hang on to the middle ground - defending the Welfare State and so on - and those who want to drive politics rightwards.

This last is probably Labour's big attacking opportunity. Gordon Brown has made a political art of opening policy cracks, and the tension between Clarkeites and Por tillo-ites was virtually institutionalised by Wednesday's reshuffle. Blair and Brown believe that the Chancellor will try to stand his ground, but that the situation is complicated because the Prime Minister sees Clarke as a serious rival. There is great potential for trouble-making, perhaps as great as over Europe. But it will require the killer instinct.

But even more will be required if Labour is to take hold of the imaginations of the cautious, pragmatic, furrow-browed, often-disappointed folk of Middle England. They will want to know whether he will have a strong grip on the public sector (or, to put it more simply, their money).

Demonstrating that will require toughness in the new leader, because it will mean keeping the pressure on public-sector managers, through competition and output measurements. And that, to an embarrassing degree, means accepting the agenda that has been used by centre-left governments abroad, but which is associated with the Tories here. Some of this new thinking has already started: there will be squalls when it is publicly discussed.

Tough managerialism is, however, as essential a part of Labour's attempt to regain power as Blair's grace notes of hope. In the contest between politics as uplifting philosophy, and politics as competent administration, the former can only win if it delivers the latter as well. That has always been, the Conservatives' secret weapon.

(Photograph omitted)