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LISTENING AND LEARNING
- A shrunken Blair and the PM-in-waiting

Polling day has come and gone and politicians and voters alike are taking stock. An apparently chastened and sombre Tony Blair returned to Downing Street last Friday, with a majority shrunk from 167 to 67. He promised to 'listen and learn' from a result that shows distrust and distaste for his presidential, non-consensual style of leadership. In his acceptance speech, following habitual victory in his own constituency of Sedgefield, he said that voters had shown they wanted the government returned but with a reduced majority.

Many who voted against Labour on this occasion were registering a protest against the prime minister rather than voting for a change of government party. In spite of a high proportion of Conservative votes, few, outside core loyalists, seemed to want a Conservative victory, and Charles Kennedy, in his wildest fantasies, had no expectation of forming a government. The low turnout, leaving nearly 40 per cent of the electorate voiceless, nevertheless reflects the view of the country as a whole, of the political scene. Had the 2001 general election reduced the power of the Labour government, and particularly of Tony Blair, by providing a counterbalance in the form of viable opposition, the most damaging issues in 2005 might have been avoided.

The beaming countenance of Gordon Brown, in his Scottish constituency, was that of a prime-minister-in-waiting, at whose door few of the recent vicissitudes of his party could be laid. Initially the Labour Party conference in October seemed the likely moment of truth for Blair, but by the weekend it became clear that a powerful backbench lobby was already sharpening its knives for an earlier coup de gr'ce. With the leadership of the Conservative Party, too, in question again, the scene is set for more disenchanting internal battles in the two major parties.

The regularity with which Conservatives swap one leader for another is becoming distinctly de-pressing. With renewed nostalgia, thoughts turn again to the great, if not necessarily good, statesmen who used to be the powerful figureheads of the party. Michael Howard's immediate resignation is unlikely to avoid more in-party fighting over direction and leadership.

A brief year or so of peace in the ranks might have given an impression of solidarity and renewed the respect for the Conservative parliamentary party that has been singularly lacking over the last ten or so years. The shadow home secretary, David Davis, has already emerged as the front-runner in a leadership contest, ahead of Liam Fox, the party co-chairman. Both are public names but hardly public faces, and Davis is a right-winger, more likely to widen fissures dramatically in the party than to bridge them. Views, historically including a call for the return of the death penalty, are unlikely to fit well with efforts to have an impact on the ground that has been stolen from the Conservatives by a moderate Labour party. Nor will such opinions create new support amongst young people, who are increasingly and thankfully taught tolerance and inclusive citizenship.

Liam Fox is seen as the guardian of Thatcherism in the party and is also right of centre. He, like Davis, lacks broad support in the parliamentary party. The old heavyweight, Ken Clark, one of the few potential contenders with the ability to face down Gordon Brown, is likely to count himself out on grounds of age and his well-known pro-European stance, an ongoing divisive issue. The younger stars of the party are too young and too little known to be more than future hopes. Bizarrely, the most credible candidate is the former leader, William Hague, now older and almost certainly too much wiser to want the job.

Perhaps the Conservative Party should return to its roots and to the days when everyone understood who and what its leadership was. There is something to be said in favour of a great figure, quite literally, as leader; one who would be wholly undaunted by Gordon Brown. Stand forward the Honourable Nicholas Soames, otherwise known as Fatty, grandson of Winston Churchill and good old-fashioned 'toff'. Whilst some of his equally old-fashioned views are hard to stomach and his voice sounds as if he swallowed a fruit bowl, he is a man of large physical presence with an unparalleled ability to steer a friendly path and share a friendly drink with politicians and ordinary people of all political hues. In addition, and most delightfully, he is one of the few really funny men in politics today. His nomination is an improbable eventuality I fear, but Soames would at least give us all something worth watching and add a hefty dose of much needed colour to the drab picture of politics today.

More seriously, notwithstanding ongoing leadership issues, where do we go now after the election dust has settled' If Brown becomes prime minister, the government may shift to the left, but it is hard to believe that he would willingly lose the middle-class support that the New Labour message created. If, in this election, a proportion of that support went to the LibDems, the protest has been heard and there is good reason to repair the broken fences. We hope that Thursday's result will create more democratic government, where the opinions of the people are once again heard through their representatives in a better balanced and empowered parliament.

More probably, it will be business as usual with a modification of the arrogance that characterized the prime minister's leading the country into Iraq and the heedless dismissal of the countryside population over the issue of fox-hunting. Effectively, there will not be reversals of unpopular policies from the last government, but rather a change of public image through the careful portrayal of a new, more empathetic process of working with and for people on domestic and economic concerns. Less overt trumpeting of our importance as deputy to the United States of America in policing the rest of the world would show government contrition over Iraq, although a populist move such as early withdrawal, leaving scared and trigger-happy Americans in body-armour and tanks in sole charge, is too frightening and improbable to contemplate.

The government reshuffle immediately after the election has returned the disgraced home secretary, David Blunkett, to the cabinet after his brief period in the wilderness. He returned as work and pensions secretary, responsible for vital pensions reform. More importantly for the prime minister, Blunkett is his ally and his new appointment cements his loyalty. Geoff Hoon, formerly a contentious defence secretary through the Iraq fallout, has been moved to safe pastures as leader of the House of Commons and may think himself lucky to have a job at all.

Alan Milburn, chief election strategist, has refused a job in a Blair cabinet, but will be waiting on the sidelines for a job with Gordon Brown. His refusal forced a complicated juggling act by the prime minister and the new cabinet is being seen as something of a botched up job. The state of the National Health Service and hospitals, pensions, and the education system is at the top of the list both for government action and opposition attack in the new parliament. There are dark and bearish mutterings regarding the economy but, for the moment, Gordon Brown holds the exchequer and the opposition has few weapons against him.

In the first weeks and months of the new parliament, much of inter-party and internal party debate, fuelled by a press feeding frenzy over wounded party leaders, will continue to focus on personalities. The Liberal Democrats may not have done as well as they had hoped in the election (they seldom do), but they now have 62 members in a better balanced parliament. In addition, there have been no murmurs of change at the top; Charles Kennedy remains a good chap and has no immediately obvious challenger.

The long-standing LibDem call for electoral reform has been heard again in the light of a Labour victory based on the lowest-ever share of the vote by a winning party. There are supporters of reform in all parties. The Labour peer, Lord Lipsey, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying: 'The British first past the post electoral system has reduced the general election to a travesty of democracy. How can a government backed by only one in four or five of electors conceivably claim any sort of valid democratic mandate'

The LibDems would be in the vanguard of any movement for change, but the issue is one that arises regularly in the aftermath of polling day, only to be shoved back into the margins again. It seems just too complicated to address in the life of a parliament. In other areas, while it has no outright power, Kennedy's party is in a position to avoid the wars of personalities and to create moderate alliances able to influence the future direction of parliament and government for the good of the whole country.

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