Grown-up politics from the Tory centre

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The Independent Online
THE BODY language told the story: yesterday John Major was standing among his own people, not over them, stripped of the grandeur of the podium and reading his own words, without benefit of autocue. Great oratory it wasn't, and great oratory it wasn't intended to be: this was plain, modest, Middle-England Major.

His speech was so stripped of the usual devices that it utterly divided those watching and listening - some thought it the best they had heard in their lives, some thought it absolutely the worst. For what it's worth, I thought that had most of the British population been able to sit there quietly and listen to him, his popularity rating would have recovered overnight.

Strategically, Mr Major has rejected the instincts of the loudest of his activists, and some ministers, and gone for convergence politics across the central range of the domestic agenda. What he said about the NHS was personal and eloquent and would have been cheered at any Labour conference. What he said about the burden of bureaucracy imposed on schools was far friendlier to the teaching unions than anything from Tony Blair last week at Blackpool. Much of what he said about crime would have sounded unexceptional from Labour, too.

In the jargon, he has gone for the Coke strategy - 'it's the real thing' - rather than the 'clear blue water' of a rightwards lurch advocated by so many. This was the message of internal Tory surveys which showed deep public anger about the bureaucratic and intrusive reforms his government has pushed through. Many people will hope for a little less government interference on other issues too - the nightmarish prospect of both ID cards and compulsory netball is taking the assault on us flabby anarchists too far. Still, on the main agenda, this refusal to cede Blair the centre-ground was shrewd politics, entirely the right strategy for the Conservatives.

Convergence was also part of the message of the absorbing final passage in his speech, a head-on assault on political rhetoric from this least happily rhetorical of leaders. Let us dwell on these words: 'No facile phrases, no pious cliche, no narrow simplification, no mock-honest, mock-familiar, ad-man's speak can conceal the infinite complexity of government . . . Take care not to confuse oratory with practical concern . . . The time is ripe for grown-up politics. The glib phrases, the sound bites, the ritual conflicts - all these may be the daily stuff of life for the upper one thousand of politics. But to 50 million other people in this country they are utterly irrelevant . . . My trade has never been in adjectives.'

Those are complex sentiments. Just who was he attacking? Blair's much-praised rhetoric of a week ago, or the glib and simplistic speeches of some of his Tory rivals this week? Both, I guess. Note too that he was condemning both adjectives and ritual attacks after an hour in which he had overdosed publicly on both. Still, that's politics: party conferences are where glib phrases go for their holidays.

More interesting still, however, was that Mr Major's basic message of revulsion against custard-pie politics is shared entirely by both Blair and Paddy Ashdown. They too have called for a return to grown-up politics and realism. This is a convergence which, if it is sincere, deserves applause. But do these people mean it? When Parliament returns next week, we shall be watching and waiting.

But neither the convergence on the domestic agenda, nor this tentative apology for irrelevant point- scoring, will be allowed to cloud the great issues that will separate the parties by the next election. The centrality of tax is well understood. But one of the most striking lessons of this week has been confirmation that the issue of nation will matter more during the next stage of political argument than it has since the Seventies.

One Cabinet minister said that there were only three big issues - 'fear, greed and sense of belonging'; and the one thing he had learnt as a politician was that a sense of belonging was even more important than the other two.

Mr Major clearly agrees. The main lines of attack will be over federalism and Scottish Home Rule. On Europe, it was hardly heroic of the Prime Minister to pass quickly over the subject yesterday, but it was probably sensible. The Tory wound gapes as widely and redly as ever and, behind the scenes, one of the most persistent topics of ministerial speculation has been whether or not a referendum would bind the party together. They expect Labour to play the referendum card, and fear it might prove effective against the charge of 'craven' Euro-mania.

But a referendum would be difficult for Mr Major to sell: he routinely accuses Labour of abandoning its principles, and he would have a steaming heap of his own anti-referendum arguments to swallow if he tried that wheeze.

Home Rule is easier politics for the Conservatives. It featured early on and forcibly in John Major's speech, but the most sustained argument had come earlier in the day from the Scottish Secretary Ian Lang - one of Mr Major's most loyal supporters and most effective and underrated allies.

Citing Labour's commitment to legislate for a Scottish parliament in the first term, Mr Lang told the Tories that the first Queen's Speech of a Blair government would read: 'My Government will introduce a Bill that would loosen the bonds of my Kingdom, leading ultimately to its disintegration. No other measures will be laid before you.' This, he said, was because the Tories were determined to fight the Home Rule Bill 'tooth and nail, cause by clause, line by line, word by word. And it cannot under the rules of Parliament be guillotined'.

This is a fascinating threat because of the intense and ironic way it focuses the constitutional argument: the obvious response is that Labour would ignore the conventions, change the rules and use a parliamentary majority in the same ruthless way the Conservatives have done. Yet Labour is supposed now to abhor what has been called 'parliamentary absolutism', just as the Conservatives are supposed to be fighting to maintain it.

The ironies don't stop there: Ian Lang proclaimed: 'from Bournemouth to Benbecula; from Glamorgan to Galloway; from Cornwall to Caithness, let there be no doubt; this is the Conservative and Unionist Party'. What, no mention of Belfast? What about Londonderry? Similarly, when Mr Major asked in his speech whether a Scottish Parliament was compatible with keeping the current number of Scottish MPs at Westminster, it immediately led one to wonder whether, if the peace process leads to a Northern Ireland assembly, the same would apply to the Unionist MPs.

Never mind. We see ever more clearly where the battle lines are forming. The opposition parties cannot rely on the dreadful economic record of recent times surviving in the minds of voters by the time the election comes, nor can they rely on Mr Major evacuating the sensible centre on education and health, and they must expect a ferocious struggle over the spirit of nationhood too. It is entirely possible that the Tories will rip themselves apart over Europe but, after this conference, the best guess is that their oldest instinct, which is for survival, will reassert itself, and that the party will fight Blair's New Labour relentlessly and unflinchingly right up to the wire.