No danger from dinosaurs, but is Blair afraid of spiders?

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TOMORROW Mr Tony Blair is to address several hundred of Mr Rupert Murdoch's functionaries in Queensland, Australia. It seems a long way to go to make one speech: all the longer since one of the Prince of Darkness's own satellites could transmit words and pictures to the expectant audience without any need for Mr Blair to leave his comfortable residence in London N1. No doubt he considers his journey to be, if not really necessary, then at least likely to do him a bit of good.

Unlike some people, I do not think Mr Blair is betraying the Movement by making this trip. My advice to him is not to expect anything from Mr Murdoch in return, and certainly not to promise anything in advance in exchange for his newspapers' support at the election. It has been said many times already that Mr Murdoch likes backing winners. Don't we all? Well, actually, no. Some of us actively enjoy supporting lost causes, such as the Glamorgan County Cricket Club.

Mr Murdoch is not, as far as we know, a member of this group. He deals with the party which is in power - or which he expects to see in power. Ever since his accession, Mr Blair has been in the happy position of leading that party. No Labour Leader of the Opposition has occupied it since Harold Wilson in 1963-64.

Like Wilson in that period, he has made numerous speeches. Unlike those speeches, they have not been widely reported. This has been so partly because they have not been evidently striking. Perhaps this is all to the good. Who now, for example, remembers Wilson's promise to introduce a two-tier system of interest rates? (This idea, oddly enough, was taken up in modified form by Lady Thatcher in the October 1974 election.)

But it has also been so because of a growing disinclination by our great newspapers to provide the readers with what may be called raw news: what the man or the woman said. Instead we are told what, in the reporter's opinion, will be the effect of the politician's observations on, say, his colleagues. Speeches are no longer reported even approximately in full. Even the supposedly newsy bits of them are paraphrased. In these circumstances I feel justified in reproducing part of what Mr Blair said to the transport workers' conference last Monday:

"Trade unions should do the job of trade unions. The Labour Party must do the job of government. The British people expect Labour to govern for the whole country and we will. They want government policy decided in the national interest and it will be. They want a government which listens but one which in the end makes its own decisions, and that is what they will get."

It is unlikely that these words will find their way into any anthology of 20th century political oratory: even more unlikely that any one of Mr Blair's five predecessors would have uttered them. The possible exception is Wilson, who after 1966 - in his endeavours to make Labour the "natural party of government" - increasingly tried to distinguish "your Labour government" from the cantankerous old Labour Party.

Lady Thatcher went further. She tried to pretend that what the Cabinet did was nothing to do with her. By the operation of what William Blake called fearful symmetry, this turned out to be only too true on that terrible Wednesday evening in November 1990. In the previous years she had tended to say: "But this is disgraceful. The Government really must do something about it."

Mr Blair does not use this device. How can he, as he is not yet Prime Minister? What he is doing is detaching the party from the trade unions. He also uses "New Labour" without what the young persons who are employed to write book reviews would call self-referential irony. He uses it as if it were a proper title, like the New Statesman, New College or New Improved Ariel.

This is no laughing matter - not, at any rate, for the Conservatives. Do they attack Mr Blair for having changed his principles; for not having had any in the first place; or for adhering to them still and merely pretending to be some new kind of politician? A compromise solution has been arrived at, though it is not very satisfactory. Mr Blair may indeed be something new: but his party is as old as ... well, as Keir Hardie or, at any rate, Mr Tony Benn. The party is a dinosaur being led around Wembley Stadium by a pop star. Though the young man is attractive enough in his way, the beast will shortly escape his custody and wreak terrible damage on innocent onlookers.

As distinct from real bites, sound bites are the speciality of the youthful custodian. Mr John Major is particularly keen on bringing up whenever possible Mr Blair's supposed predilection for this form of communication. Mr Major may be making a mistake. For most people outside newspapers and broadcasting do not have the faintest idea what sound bites are. No more do they have any notion of what spin-doctors are meant to do. Lady Thatcher certainly did not know what a sound bite was. Once, after she had been interviewed in the United States, her Sancho Panza, Sir Charles Powell, told her that her observations contained several usable sound bites. "Oh for goodness sake speak proper English, Charles," she said, or words to this effect. Sir Charles then explained that sound bites were seconds- long quotations from politicians used in television news bulletins. Once they have had the phrase explained similarly to them, fair-minded voters will surely conclude that in this respect Mr Blair is no better and no worse than Mr Major or, indeed, any other politician.

Since his accession, Mr Blair has hardly put a foot wrong. In January the Conservatives thought they had reversed the terms of political trade, notably over his decision to send his son to a direct-grant school. This turned out to be a popular move on his part, demonstrating to the voters that, unrestricted by political dogma, he was merely trying to do the best for his boy.

In the last week, however, a small spider has managed to find its way into Mr Blair's bath. An ICM poll published in the Guardian recorded that Labour's lead had dropped from 25 to 15 per cent since Mr Major's re-election as leader of his party. Originally the paper had erroneously reported no change. This impelled Mr Major to say that he was glad it was Sir Marcus Fox who had counted his votes and not ICM.

The moral is that all publicity is good publicity. In the last fortnight the Conservative Party has scarcely been off screens or front pages, however inglorious the light in which it may have appeared. We may now expect Mr Michael Heseltine to devote his energies, not to acting out one of those complicated newspaper charts setting out his responsibilities (for charts, in my experience, invariably turn out to be misleading), but to attacking Mr Blair and the Shadow Cabinet. I predict he will start by pointing out that, under the party's Standing Orders, Mr Blair is obliged to accommodate every single member of what the French happily call le cabinet fantome in the real cabinet - a chastening thought for us all.