The Labour conference opens to a background hum of cathartic ministerial confessions. We have got things wrong. We must learn from our mistakes. It is the new fashion: the humble politician. The Conservative chairman, Theresa May, started the trend by telling her party members that they were regarded as "nasty". Lord Hutton's inquiry took the new candour to an almost surreal level, with Downing Street handing over every frenzied emails relating to its row with the BBC, as if the act of publication would purge them of any political sin.
Now Tony Blair and his senior allies are set to apply the same open introspection in Bournemouth. Blair says he must listen and consult more widely, implying a failure to do so in the past. In a pamphlet to be published tomorrow, Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister, explores why the Government is no longer trusted, and calls for more candour over the challenges that it faces. Stephen Byers, the former transport secretary, and Alan Milburn, the former health secretary, a double act revived on the back benches, speak of the need for a radical cutting-edge, clearly rooted on the centre-left. Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, has criticised the use of "technocratic" language and a macho political style.
Blair's critics are understandably suspicious of these confessional outbursts, which are carefully co-ordinated and discussed in advance with the Prime Minister himself. They note the emphasis on changes in the way the Government explains itself, rather than on the substance of policies. They have a point. The Blairite message can be roughly summarised as: "It has been awful. We will listen to you telling us how awful it has been. We plan to stick with the same course. There is no turning back. Thank you and goodnight."
But it would be wrong to dismiss this ambiguous, seemingly contradictory message as an entirely superficial exercise. Blair and his entourage are as aware as anyone that they face an enormous challenge in reviving their authority and credibility. This is a group of people who were thrown into a state of fearful panic when they were 30 points ahead in the polls. Those four successive general election defeats have conditioned them to be pessimistic at the best of times. They will not be complacent now. More importantly, a change of political style will almost certainly have an impact on the way policies are developed in the future.
For this government, the style tends to determine the policies. In its early days a prime ministerial visit to a council estate was hailed as a revolution in welfare reform. Blair topped the bill at "welfare roadshows", proclaiming the new crusade, but without outlining what form that crusade would take. For a time, symbolism became an alternative to detailed policies.
Over the past 12 months, the Government has swung to the other extreme. At last year's conference, Blair declared that the Government was at its best when it was at its boldest. He made the mistake of announcing his political courage in advance before he had decided precisely how he wished to be bold. Subsequently, policies were rushed out too quickly in a desperate attempt to display courageous political momentum.
In Bournemouth, the Government faces the consequences of its macho posturing. The opponents of foundation hospitals fear the semi-privatisation of the NHS when, in reality, Blair has been much more pragmatic, rejecting the original proposal that the new institutions could borrow more or less what they wanted. As Gordon Brown argued in seething ministerial discussions at the time, such freedom would have forced the foundation hospitals to charge patients or ask the Treasury for more cash to repay the debts.
Now that boldly silly idea has been dropped, some senior government insiders believe that the "new" powers being bestowed on foundation hospitals already exist from legislation passed in the early 1990s. Not for the first time, an incremental reform has been presented as a revolution, and the doubters are responding with a similar revolutionary zeal. They are going to the barricades over very little.
So the style of government matters. And if policies are not rushed through to get a bold headline or two, and there is wider consultation, those policies are likely to be more coherent. They are also likely to be more robust if Blair and his colleagues are more open about how difficult it is to get those reforms right. They face a genuinely daunting and unresolved conundrum: how to deliver flexible public services of a similarly high standard, in both poor and affluent areas, without crushingly bureaucratic control from the centre. As I argue in this month's Prospect magazine, the attempts to address this conundrum have been at the heart of the tensions between Blair and Brown. Reforming the public services is a more complex challenge than any that Margaret Thatcher faced in the 1980s. Why not say so, rather than affect a Thatcher-like certainty of the way ahead?
In spite of the headlines raging this weekend, I predict that Labour's conference will respond fairly positively to the new tone at the top. This conference will be difficult for Blair, but it is the sort of nightmare that his predecessors would have died for: an economic context of virtually full employment, sustained increases in public spending, and a political situation in which the leadership faces a defeat or two. The prospect of such a conference would have propelled Harold Wilson or Jim Callaghan into a dizzy state of euphoria.
The broader electorate and the media will be less enthused by Blair's modest reinvention. This is what has changed over the past year. The Prime Minister has always had his doubters in the Labour Party, but now he has the media and Middle England on his back. He, and his close allies, say they have been stuck in a tunnel, largely brought about by the war against Iraq, but they now see a glimmer of light. They regard the conference as an important staging post, but they see the verdict from the Hutton inquiry as being at least as important: the moment when they emerge from the tunnel. I am told that Blair plans a fairly extensive Cabinet reshuffle after Hutton, ministerial changes that will highlight his post-Iraq focus on public services. His aides predict that only then will he and the rest of them break free from the darkness of the past year.
Their nervy optimism is reminiscent of the time when John Major announced a leadership contest for the Conservative Party while he was still prime minister. I recall a senior aide to Major predicting that the contest would draw a line under his difficulties; he would reshuffle his cabinet and have a fresh start. Major's fresh start lasted for around 10 minutes before a new crisis erupted. Of course, the parallel is imprecise. By then, Major was 20 points behind in the polls to Labour. Blair is still ahead and faces no credible opposition from the Conservatives. But that does not mean that a political renewal is guaranteed.
The war against Iraq has created the crisis over trust, and the Prime Minister will find it hard to apply the new candour to this particular matter. He cannot say that he supported the US partly to counter some of the maniacs in the Bush administration. Nor can he say that the intelligence agencies got it hopelessly wrong. Neither assertion would justify the war, but they might help to explain the complex range of decisions that led to his mistaken and premature commitment to war. Instead, he is left without any weapons of mass destruction, while keeping his fingers crossed that Iraq does not implode over the next year. It leaves him dreadfully exposed.
The success of Blair's unofficial relaunch will not be determined in Bournemouth, but rather by what happens in Baghdad and beyond.Reuse content