Blair's gear changes: fast forward in public, reverse behind closed doors

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Whatever the political circumstances, Tony Blair delivers virtually the same conference speech each year. Whether in Bournemouth, Brighton or Blackpool, he speaks as if he is in the middle of a forbidding political storm, a tempest that is partly an unavoidable consequence of his own crusading radicalism. Towards the end of the annual address he reasserts his sweaty determination to lead from the front and challenges his party to grow up and strive on with him.

In 1997, when he was 30 points ahead in the polls and in charge of a booming economy, Blair lectured his party about the "hard choices". He would not flinch from taking them. A couple of years later, 25 points ahead in the polls, the Prime Minister was taking on new challenges. On several fronts he faced the ill-defined forces of conservatism. He would not hesitate from taking them on, and urged his delegates to support him, while implying that they were one of the conservative forces that threatened to block his way. Last week the leader asserted his determination to stride on through another howling political gale. "Give up on it. Or get on with it? That is the question," he declared, as if he was Hamlet without the self-doubt. Towards the end of his speech he laid down what he apparently regarded as the only relevant dividing lines: "Forward or back. I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear".

The crusading tone, composed with Margaret Thatcher breathing down his neck, is precisely the opposite of Blair's actual style of leadership. It is utterly misleading and leads us into several political fantasy worlds. Quite often after these annual lectures in boldness Blair has returned to Downing Street and applied his reverse gear, whether it was during his journey with the Liberal Democrats ("Sorry, Paddy, this is as far as I am going with you lot. I'm dropping the promised referendum on electoral reform as well!"), or his concessions to the fuel protesters, or the changes to foundation hospitals. And let us not forget the retreat over the euro. On some of the biggest policies of the day Blair's hand has rarely been off the reverse gear.

It could be argued that these displays of machismo are part of Blair's strength. British voters and newspaper editors who grew up with Thatcher finddisplays of boldness inspiring and reassuring, no matter what happens behind the scenes when policies suffer from more muddled application. But a determined reassertion of a leadership style that is not connected with what is actually happening leads to some convoluted and politically dangerous consequences.

The most obvious example of the damaging disconnection between posture and reality is the current bizarre frenzy over foundation hospitals. A small number of powers are being devolved to hospitals that are well managed and innovative. The reform is so small that it could have been introduced without new legislation. Unfortunately the proposal was unveiled at around the time when the Prime Minister was making vague speeches about the role of the private sector in public services and on the need to be bold. Foundation hospitals were spun as a crusading reform, made to seem much bigger than they were. As a result, a significant amount of political goodwill is being used up over the implementation of a tiny reform. Almost inevitably this will make it more difficult to introduce genuinely controversial and more substantial proposals over the next 18 months.

At a fringe meeting shortly before Blair's speech, the MP John Cruddas made a perceptive analysis of why there was such intense unease within the Labour Party and beyond over what was essentially a pragmatic, cautious and fairly successful social democratic government. Cruddas, who worked in Downing Street during Labour's first term, pointed out that virtually every government policy was presented in an overblown and intimidating context: New Labour, New Europe, New Britain. Cruddas implied that Blair does not dare to find a language that more accurately conveys the halting progress of his administration.

Blair's strident language made his offer of a national public consultation exercise seem like a dramatic departure. This is another fantasy. Blair has always listened. He listens too much. The focus groups, the opinion polls and the newspapers do not dominate in the way they did during the first term, but they still play a bigger role in policy-making and direction than under previous prime ministers.

Labour's conference showed that in some ways Blair's party has become "newer" than its leader. It has left its past behind. Instead of taking credit for this, Blair chose to remind his audience of Neil Kinnock's famous conference confrontation with Militant in 1985. This evocation of the past was superfluously absurd with its implication that he is facing similar internal challenges now. It was another fantasy. In reality here was a conference cheering him to the rafters, as I predicted it would do last week. They want him to succeed. They want to show the media that they want him to succeed. Last week's conference was a grown-up political gathering, full of informed and heated fringe meetings without the hysteria that marked the 1980s, the decade from which Blair cannot quite escape.

The unnecessary finger-wagging sends out the subliminal message that the Government's successes are happening in spite of his party. Gordon Brown's speech was partly a reproach to this persistent triangulation, political positioning that places the leader at some distance from his party. Brown's never-ending references to "Labour" were not simply a bid to woo the party he seeks to lead. He worries restlessly that the Government's modernising record is being presented as one that has been imposed on a reluctant party. For Brown, Labour's future will be safe only when it, rather than he and Blair, becomes associated with prudence with a purpose. His speech was widely misreported as being "old Labour"; he got the largest cheers for his reminders that he had repaid debt, made the Bank of England independent, and was seeking more flexible labour markets. In the 1980s he would have been booed off the stage.

Brown's political fortunes have oscillated wildly over the past decade, but at this conference he moved from soaring successor to doomed candidate within 24 hours, the space between his speech and Blair's. Such extreme oscillation is close to meaningless in measuring Brown's long-term future. He will rise and fall again before long. All it illustrates is the unpredictability caused by the seething, almost unsustainable tensions at the top. Less noticed was the growing maturity of the party below the two warring titans. For the first time in its history, Labour has become a party at ease with power, making its leaders seem the ones who are out of date.