Why Blair will soon invite Ashdown into the Cabinet

Donald Mcintyre on the centre-left convergence

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When Tony Blair used to say, semi-privately, before the election that he would be more radical than people expected him to be, no one quite knew what he meant. Radical in the traditional, liberal-left sense; or radical as Margaret Thatcher meant it? Eight months on, he is entitled to feel he has started to answer that question. Whether or not you use the term "radical centre", as some Blairites do, it is not a radicalism of the right.

The sweeping reforms in education and health are designed to deliver better public services, not stimulate the use of private care. Even welfare reform, the toughest element of his programme, is designed to generate more public funds where they are needed, not shrink the state, as the Thatcherites wanted - and want - to do.

And on constitutional reform, he has been unquestionably radical in a liberal sense - moving faster and farther than seemed likely to many doubters. Governments with large majorities have not been in the habit of devolving or sharing power.

Yet polling day for the Scottish Parliament will happen in May 1999. Elections for a London mayor, in its own way more of a genuinely Blairite innovation, since it wasn't even on Labour's agenda until he became leader, will take place in 2000. The White Paper on the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights builds into the British constitution a new and historic check on the the power of the executive. More unexpectedly, the Cabinet has approved a freedom of information measure which is significantly more liberal than it might have been. Blair first brought leading Liberal Democrats into a joint cabinet committee on constitutional reform. Then he granted proportional representation for the 1999 European elections, and followed up by underpinning his promise of a referendum on electoral reform for the Commons by appointing the Jenkins commission to come up with an alternative voting system. In doing so, he showed at the very least that he is ready for the country to decide whether it wants to change the way it elects its government. It is safe to assume that he has not set up a high-powered cabinet committee on Lords reform without fully intending to push through the changes which an unholy alliance between Michael Foot and Enoch Powell forestalled in the late Sixties.

This is a familiar catalogue. But whether or not you agree with all the items on it, you can't really deny that it adds up, after just eight months, to a pretty formidable programme for constitutional change. And it also has consequences for the future shape of party politics. It demonstrates, first of all, that on political reform Blair, though notably not himself a constitutional obsessive, has been prepared not just to think the conventionally unthinkable, but to do it. Which in itself suggests that he could go farther still. If he has proved that he meant what he said about so much else, perhaps we should be re-examining some of the other things he has been saying. A good starting-point is his conference speech in Brighton in October. In a relatively short section on constitutional reform he acknowledged that "some of you are a bit nervous about what I am doing with the Liberal Democrats". Then, unrepentantly, he added: "Since this is a day for honesty, I'll tell you: my heroes aren't just Ernie Bevin, Nye Bevan and Attlee. They are also Keynes, Beveridge, Lloyd George. Division among radicals almost 100 years ago resulted in a 20th century dominated by Conservatives. I want the 21st century to be the century of the radicals."

I suspect that the significance of this passage has been greatly underestimated.It was the clearest sign yet that Blair is fundamentally unsympathetic (as his third Liberal hero Lloyd George was) to the wastefulness of two parties competing for the same territory in the centre and centre left. Particularly when nothing any more separates them ideologically. More important, it suggests that the unprecedented decision to bring Paddy Ashdown and his colleagues into a cabinet committee at the heart of government - which, interestingly, happened with scarcely a murmur of protest in either party - is merely part of a bigger picture.

This doesn't necessarily mean a merger, at least in the foreseeable future. For the moment, the deep tribalism in the many parts of their parties that neither of them have yet reached would probably militate against it. But the logic of his conference speech does point rather clearly to something else: bringing some of the best Liberal Democrats into the Government well before the next general election.

If - and for a few hours it seemed a possibility - Blair had immediately after the election offered Paddy Ashdown the job of, say, Northern Ireland Secretary, and Menzies Campbell Defence, it would have been a hard offer to refuse. Here would have been two able men, deeply sympathetic to the Blair programme, having taken up politics because they wanted to do things rather than just say them, having the prospect of office dangled before them at long last. Probably they would nevertheless have regretfully declined. What could their party claim it had secured in return? It did not, even then, have a guarantee of proportional representation for the European Parliament, a change which would strengthen its base, but which David Steel had been humiliatingly denied in return for propping up the Callaghan government in the late Seventies. That picture has now altered quite substantially; true, they still do not have their precious Commons PR - though they are closer to electoral change than they have ever been. And nobody can look back at that list of constitutional advances and deny that real progress has been made. What reasons, other than those of sheer tribalism, would now justify the stubborn refusal of office? My guess is that Blair is now impatient to gather together the collective anti- Tory forces, while he is ahead. All the theological discussion over electoral systems has always been subordinate in his mind to how best to keep the Tories out of office for a long, long time. He likes Ashdown. He has no patience for false arguments between politicians whose world view is fundamentally similar. It follows that if the 21st century is to be the "century of the radical", as the 20th was that of the Conservatives, the two parties of the centre left will have to start reuniting at the end of this century, just as they split in two at the beginning of it. The first step will surely be Liberal Democrats in the Cabinet. Maybe it won't happen in the next reshuffle, though it could. But some time soon, quite possibly next year, Paddy Ashdown and a handful of his colleagues will surely get the chance to decide whether they want to continue nudging - and sometimes shouting - from the sidelines, or influence a Blair government from within.

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