While the Tories bicker, politics is changing shape

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The Independent Online
The Conservative Party is not itself. After last night's agonisingly close vote, it is broken in two; there is something profoundly symbolic and, for traditional Tories, equally ominous in the simple revelation that this party, once so adept at falling behind a new leader, is absolutely at a loss about which way to jump.

Whether Hague wins and leads the party further on its ideological kick, or whether it has a rush of reason to the head and plumps for Clarke, it is hard to see how either man can hold this thing together. Look closely at the faces after last night's vote and you see people who are still in deep, delirious denial. There is something fundamentally unserious about politicians who clearly think that these are still days for score- settling and ideology, not for rethinking and humility. I watch them and think they are a little nuts - high - several front-benchers short of an Opposition.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, must wonder if his luck will ever end. Just as the sky darkens a little over his new administration - murders in Ulster, hard choices coming on public spending - he is offered the political equivalent of another few score on his Commons majority.

That is what the leadership fight seems to mean. Whether some moderate Tory MPs defect, or merely sit as a coherent, self-organised parliamentary splinter group, the prospect of a united main opposition party looks increasingly remote.

At bottom, the anti-Clarke camps seem bizarrely complacent. They think the party is something that can be reformed on anti-EMU, even anti-EU, lines, then Mandelson-ised, and can wait for the pendulum to swing. There will be a jolly few years of money-making and social life; the electorate will see sense; then it will be jobs for the chaps again.

And, of course, there is a respectable case for thinking that Blair and Co may foul things up and that one landslide may be followed by another. In politics, the only safe prediction is that the pundits will be confounded. (It is our constitutional function.)

But this thinking badly underestimates the scale of the Blairite project. Its ambition is to remake British politics, so that the broad, consensual middle-ground - pro-European but not federalist, pro-business but with a social conscience - is so firmly embedded in a grand political alliance as to be unmovable.

That's the ambition. There would be no government-shifting swing between left and right; merely a continuing ``inclusive'' administration that stuck close to popular priorities at all times. Blairite reformers had assumed that this would require proportional representation; maybe it doesn't. Maybe moderate Tories and Liberal Democrats are available already as cadet branches of the all-conquering new order.

Leave aside the inevitable hard choices, mistakes and enemies that any government makes. Is this not an impossible dream, simply because of the way modern societies work? Whether or not ``left'' and ``right'' are useful labels, all developed democracies have tended to evolve a system of binary politics, with periodic choices between conservatives and progressives.

As WS Gilbert put it, ``I often think it's comical / How Nature always does contrive / That every boy and every gal, / That's born into the world alive, / Is either a little Liberal, / Or else a little Conservative.''

Gilbert was making what would be nowadays called a ``pluralist'' point, satirising the assumption, not applauding it. But it does seem that healthy societies require a constant tension between reformers, or changers, and conservatives, who tug the reins - and, so far, that has been played out through party politics. And the question the Blair project raises is this: can a ``third way'' administration, deftly mixing reform and conservatism, offer society both impulses? If the answer is yes, then the Tories could find themselves irrelevant for very many years to come. In the past, though, the answer has always been no.

Sometimes ``third ways'' have been covers for authoritarianism, as in the fascist ``third way'' of the Thirties, or the strong-arm socialism of Tito's Yugoslavia; or they have seemed Utopian (``the third way'' is a common environmentalist slogan); or they have been crushed between opposing social forces - as the SDP was, in the conflict between Thatcherism and socialism. Like it or not, we have been living in a binary world.

There is another way of looking at British society today, though. Perhaps the ``progressive'' or reformist instinct does not derive from politics at all, but from science and business. The key challenges to the old order, whether in the politics of fertility, or censorship-destroying and capital- shifting information technology, or in the shifts of wealth and employment caused by globalism, are not coming from Westminster or from political radicals of any kind.

If that is so, then perhaps the role of politics will become essentially defensive and reactive - responding to the moral challenges in embryology, equipping citizens with flexible skills for the fast-changing economy; defending challenged public services; conserving as much of the remaining countryside and habitat as possible. Government becomes not a force to drive social change forward - there is plenty of that - but a conservative, moderating response to the changes roaring through our lives.

We have hardly begun to find new language to describe the Blair project. But that seems to me not a million miles away from what the Government is up to. If this analysis holds good then there is no particular reason to expect Labour in power to behave in a way that will set the pendulum swinging back: it will try to have an essentially reassuring, small-c conservative effect on us. Isn't that the message coming from most of Whitehall?

And though I may seem to have strayed a long way from the complacent student politics of much of the Conservative leadership contest, this is really what the Tories should be discussing. It is a much more profound and long-term political challenge to them than they seem to realise. The Government is quietly and determinedly redrawing the map of British politics. One of its intentions is to destroy the Conservative Party as a serious political force. Suddenly, that doesn't seem entirely impossible, though Labour will require further assistance from Tory MPs themselves. They were shattered on election night. Remarkably they are in an even worse position this morning.