Come on, Tony, just loosen up

Ken Livingstone and Charles Kennedy are old friends. Kennedy has been graciously congratulating "my good friend Ken" on becoming Mayor of London whenever the opportunity arises. Livingstone has had other matters on his mind in recent days but, if asked, he would doubtless have extended his congratulations to his good friend, Charlie, on the Liberal Democrats' victory in Romsey. They are the victors of the recent elections. One rules a city, after being apparently doomed to back-bench oblivion, the other unquestionably rules his party, following mumblings of internal discontent.

Although they are very different politicians, the two victors have something in common. They appear normal. On television and radio, they engage with good humour, and a dose of self-deprecation. Neither of them appears as if he has been manufactured from a political cloning factory. Instead, they seem fresh and, to coin a phrase, "new". Perhaps it is the joint apprenticeship they served on all those chat shows. One way or another, they have learnt that voters respond to politicians who do more than offer a vacuous soundbite.

They are not, though, quite as fresh or new as they seem. They are politicians to the ends of their fingertips. Livingstone is the political artist who ran rings around new Labour's esteemed strategists. Kennedy, too, is not beyond a bit of subtle political manoeuvring. Before he became leader, he positioned himself as the candidate who was wary of Paddy Ashdown's strategy of co-operation with Labour - though nowadays he is following a similar approach. He is nowhere near as close to Tony Blair as his predecessor, and his strategy is not as clearly worked out yet, but he wants power for his party at a national level and recognises that electoral reform is the key.

Politicians will not get very far without being political. Even so, their sense of freshness, of being different, is not just a matter of chat-show presentation. Livingstone, for example, has done in London what Blair did not do immediately after the election. He invited a Lib Dem into his administration. Partly through necessity, as he has no party members of his own, Livingstone will be conducting a political experiment in front of our eyes. Kennedy has been more daring. In the Romsey by-election, he tackled, head on, the Tories' populist campaign. For William Hague, who was rarely out of the constituency, the defeat is a severe blow.

I have to report that I bumped into the distinguished psephologist, John Curtice, in a TV dressing-room late one night, when everyone had been up watching and talking about the elections for 24 hours. He told me that he did not regard Romsey as especially significant and that the next general election was up for grabs. I am sure the editor of Another Magazine, Boris Johnson, was standing next to me at the time, wearing a dinner jacket and a policeman's helmet. Perhaps, in my election fever, I imagined Johnson's garb and the conversation with Curtice. Maybe it was Curtice who was wearing the helmet.

In the cold light of day, it still strikes me as pretty revealing that the main opposition party could not hold on to one of its safer seats. Furthermore, it was a victory for a type of daring politics that Labour finds increasingly hard to embrace. If Labour had been in second place in Romsey, it would have condemned Hague more cautiously. Kennedy made the calculation that there were some moderate Tories alienated by the xenophobia, as well as a pile of Lib Dems and a small number of Labour supporters who would happily switch to a party taking a more progressive line than their own. It paid off, to dazzling effect.

Blair is quite clearly at one with Kennedy in his distaste for Hague's populism. In the Commons at Prime Minister's Question Time, I sense that, as an individual, he would like to tear into Hague over it all; but as Prime Minister of a government where the "entire country is our core constituency", he allows Kennedy to attack more openly. It is those focus groups, the media and neurotic advisers that constrain him. I do not underestimate the importance of all three, but they combine to obscure Blair's own fresh distinctiveness.

With a young family, which keeps him fairly grounded, he is certainly a different type of Prime Minister. He is as aware as anyone that, in the words of the rather uninspiring election slogan, his government still has "a lot to do". To incoming ministers he sometimes gives marks out of ten on how the government is doing in improving the public services. Only education gets a goodish seven out of ten. This is not the behaviour of an arrogant, out-of-touch leader. Nor has power withered his interest in the Lib Dems. Almost certainly, he will respond to Romsey by taking them more seriously again.

"Kennedy's off Tony's 'Wankers List'," as one courtier put it. Getting off the Wankers List is probably as big an achievement as winning Romsey. As I have often argued, Blair's "project" with the Lib Dems has always depended on the electoral success of the smaller party.

But the cautious tactician in Blair has moved more to the fore recently, almost to the point where he has an image problem. I bumped into several people who assumed he went over to Northern Ireland the day after the local elections merely to show he was above the electoral fray. Overblown presentation, party fixes and a preoccupation with the media have had the ironic consequence of making him seem more contrived than he really is.

The successes of Livingstone and Kennedy are both triumphs for politicians who do not conform to type. In terms of style at least, the seemingly "new" and "different" victor of the 1997 election has something to learn from the unconventional duo that took the garlands this time.