Remember the Project? It's back

The seaside towns on the English south coast are safe again, left to the scudding autumn seas and the murmur of genteel voices in lounge bars and tearooms. The late-night plotting, the snatched affairs and the hangovers are now just a memory. But has anything changed? Already, most people can hardly remember anything that happened at the 2000 conferences - except, perhaps, that Tony Blair got a sweaty shirt.

Yet there have been significant developments. The Lib Dems embraced a fairly leftish policy programme; Labour, under fire, held its nerve. And the Conservatives . . . well, what was all that about? This was the week the Tories tried being nice. We saw the calm, ever- reassuring face of Michael Ancram, the party chairman, rather than the sneering, angular phizogs of, say, John Redwood or Lord Tebbit. We heard about inner-city regeneration, social agendas. Michael Portillo was so nice that it was almost impossible to remember how the country had cheered when he lost his seat.

Why such a sudden turnaround? It is not as if the Tories do "nice" very well - when you look at the faces of some of the representatives, they exude "nasty". But Tory strategists have woken up to the rebirth of the Project. The Project, you will remember, was the grand plan devised by Blair and Paddy Ashdown to form a full-scale coalition, bringing two Lib Dems into the Cabinet after the election and leading, the Lib Dems hoped, to electoral reform that would entrench a centre-left coalition and turn the Tories into a protest party of the right. What went wrong was Labour's over-mighty majority.

Blair continued to nurture the idea. He held a meeting with Ashdown and Roy Jenkins six months after his election victory to discuss the possibility of sacking two of his least favoured Cabinet ministers in favour of Menzies Campbell and Alan Beith. The grass roots of both parties hated the idea - so much so, in Labour's case, that it was quietly dropped. Ashdown, feeling betrayed, quit the game. We can expect more revelations about the extent of his negotiations with Blair in Ashdown's memoirs, to be published next month.

So what of Blair now? His conference speech was peppered with those good old socialist touchstones: solidarity, fairness, radicalism. It was enough to make old Labourites blub into their bitter. Roy Hattersley declared proudly that Labour had come home. But Blair still nurtures his dream of an anti-Tory century.

Charles Kennedy, realising the hostility that Ashdown's enthusiasm for new Labour provoked in his own party, is playing a quieter game. We won't be hearing much from him about the Project. But, behind the scenes, the Project is alive and kicking - and stands a much better chance of reaching maturity this time around than in 1997. Kennedy and Blair get on well - better, if anything, than Ashdown and Blair did. Perhaps it is a generational thing: they chat cheerfully about David Bowie - something it is hard to imagine Ashdown doing.

But Kennedy has learnt from the experience of Ashdown (and others) that what Labour promises and what it delivers are somewhat different. So for him, the arithmetic is all-important. Should he come back after the next election with, say, double the 47 seats the Lib Dems now have, he will have a much stronger hand to play.

More than 90 seats for the Lib Dems? Am I joking? Look at it this way: the Lib Dems are hovering between 17 and 20 per cent in today's volatile polls. They have been the recipients of about half of the anti-Labour protest vote during the fuel and pensions furore. When the electorate is fed up with politics - and a recent MORI poll showed the combined negative ratings for the two big party leaders at a record level - the Lib Dems have the advantage of the plague-on-both-your-houses card. And remember, in 1997, their share of the vote actually went down, while the number of seats they won went up. How did they do that? Simple - targeting, something the Lib Dems have long excelled at, and something Labour is learning fast.

In 1997, Blair was desperate to win more than half the popular vote nationwide so that he could claim a true mandate. The troops were therefore ordered to defend even the most hopeless constituencies. This time, it will be different. Reports of a signed deal on tactical voting are exaggerated, but look at the sums. Of 50 seats that the Lib Dems will be targeting - on top of the 47 they hope to hold - the vast majority are Tory/Lib Dem marginals. Labour's high share of the vote in 1997 squeezed the Lib Dems back in a whole range of seats, denying them the chance to knock out a Tory. If Labour's vote falls - even a bit - the Lib Dems reckon they stand to win a good number of seats from the Tories: Dorset West, Christchurch and Wiltshire North, for example. Labour, on the other hand, knowing that it will almost certainly lose some seats, will focus its attention on the marginal MPs it thinks it can save.

It doesn't require a formal deal, but the tactical voting we saw in the Romsey by-election will be quietly encouraged by both parties.

What happens then? A smaller Labour majority, more Lib Dem seats, and you have the makings of a deal. The price remains PR and, no matter how loud or long John Prescott bellows against it, it just might have to be paid. PR means, so its proponents claim, a permanent anti-Tory majority, which is exactly what the Project set out to achieve. Old Labour wouldn't like it any more than the Tories would. If Labour with a huge majority can't do much that is radical, what hope for an anti-Tory coalition? But it would be even worse news for Hague. Only middle-of-the-road voters can save him.

No wonder Bournemouth was nice.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie