Please, Mr Blair, tell us a nice story

Successful political leaders have a story to tell. Before the 1997 election, Tony Blair travelled around the country telling us the one about a party that had changed, and that could be trusted once more. Margaret Thatcher was subtly different as she strode to power in 1979. Her message, distilled to its core, was: "We, the politicians, trust you, the voters. We will get off your backs."

Her message remained largely un-changed in government, as she busily went about centralising power to a greater extent than any prime minister before her. This is the trend that Blair has been busy reversing, though he is seen as a deranged control freak, while good old Maggie was hailed as a strong leader.

Still, the point is that she had a story and she told it well. Blair had a compelling story before the election, which he told with spellbinding effect. When he made a series of vows with evangelical fervour at the party conference before the last election, everyone, including the media, bowed reverentially. If you read them now, they have a rather comic quality.

We will come to whether Blair still has a good story to tell shortly, but first the question needs to be asked of William Hague. He and his increasingly enthused entourage have started to set the news agenda in a similar way to Blair in opposition. Each day, I awake to news bulletins beginning with "The Conservative Party leader, William Hague, is to launch a new policy on . . ." Sometimes Ann Widdecombe makes the running. Occasionally, Michael Portillo gets a look in as well. The voters are noticing the difference.

The newspapers cannot get enough of the action, either. The Telegraph and the Mail are humming Hague's tunes. The Sun backs everything the Conservative Party says, while continuing to support Blair, a convoluted state of affairs that is likely to last until the election. The newspaper will then almost certainly endorse Labour, but Hague is no longer the dead parrot. Instead, he has neutered the Sun - always Alastair Campbell's ambition in opposition.

The change in the political weather is quite an achievement for Hague, a leader almost universally ridiculed for three years . The Blairite entourage is a little rattled, although this is not as big an achievement. They were rattled even in the early years, when Hague was seen as a joke.

Potentially, a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions looms. A senior member of the government said to me the other day: "We were at our strongest politically when we were at our most naive. There were no political obstacles in those early years, except our own inexperience. Now we know how to govern, but the Conservatives are getting off their knees and the media have turned against us."

The Hagueites have got off their knees by studying carefully the successful pre-election narrative of new Labour. Recently, in the company of one of Labour's most senior strategists in 1997, I was listening to a Hague interview. Hague explained how he would pay for his tax guarantee with proposals such as cuts in social security.

"They're doing just what we did," observed Labour's tactician, "going around looking for symbolic cuts in spending to give the impression that their programme is costed and that we are wasting money on unpopular policies." Their proposal to save a few pennies by scrapping preparations for the euro is a case in point.

But Hague has not learnt the full lesson behind the Blairites' success. Although he is everywhere, he is not telling a story. Law and order must be more rigorously enforced, he says, taxes should be cut, and the pound has to be saved (for the time being). This is crude Thatcherism, except for the qualification on the euro. At the same time, he pops up regularly to insist that spending should be increased on schools, hospitals, defence and policing. What is the distilled essence of the message, the equivalent of "We've changed. Trust us"? There isn't one.

The Blair narrative has evolved in government, although securing the voters' trust for a second term has been as big an obsession as securing their trust for a first term. But behind the scenes, the government acts out a narrative that is more compelling. A Labour government is conducting a public-spending round, quite near a general election, in which the issue is how much departments should get to spend, rather than how much they should cut. This is the sequel to "Trust us".

What is more, the determination of Blair and Gordon Brown to link additional cash to precise reforms has focused the minds of ministers and senior civil servants on the importance of delivering services as well as money. For the first time in their careers, Treasury officials are getting closely involved, for example, in the details of transport policy, which will be a big gainer in July. A rupture in this link between additional cash and reform caused the row between Blair and Brown in the run up to the Budget. Although he was ready to release the cash for the NHS, Brown wished to do so only when the reforms of the NHS had been worked through. After Lord Winston's interview in the NS, Blair wanted to announce the cash ahead of the reforms.

The rehabilitation of public spending, accompanied by reform, should be part of the government's narrative, but ministers remain wary of telling it. "We have partially rehabilitated tax and spend, but there is still a long way to go," they say. They underestimate how much the voters now trust them as a competent government willing to improve public services.

This is by no means the only example where the government's story remains partially hidden. Hague's story remains vague. Blair has a good one to tell. But will he tell it?

This article first appeared in Hacking their way to a fortune

2000-05-22