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Tuesday, November 25, 2003
Thoughts on Tony Blair

Waking up last week and feeling like writing, I scanned the press and decided to write a piece on the Prime Minister's domestic agenda. Specifically, I was to say that if he lost the vote on Foundation Hospitals, then there was little point in him going on. But I soon found that Stephen Pollard had already said it all so well in the Independent.

New Labour owes its political success to the hope it offered that it would transform public services.

It is for that reason - and nothing to do with President Bush's visit - that this week may come to be seen as the end of the road for New Labour, for Tony Blair, and for the Government as a whole. If the Government fails, as seems possible, to get four of its key Bills through Parliament by tomorrow night, it will, to use Norman Lamont's damning phrase about the Major government, be in office but not in power.

... If Labour rebels succeed in allying in sufficient numbers with the resurgent Conservatives and other opposition parties, any chance of serious NHS reform will be killed stone dead, and with it any claims that New Labour is capable of genuine public service reform. The irony is that the Bill has been so watered down by attempts to pacify its opponents that it is now barely worth the fight, other than as a piece of symbolism.

... So the Bill which is being debated tonight is more important for its de facto symbolism than its de jure impact on the NHS. But in politics, symbolism matters. If the Government wins the vote it will have won a modest policy victory, but a huge political victory, which will lay a path to the possibility of further, more worthwhile reform. If, somehow, the whips succeed in getting the Bill through, there will be some hope left that public service reform might be more than just an empty slogan for Labour.

If it loses and the limited, shackled proposals are defeated, the idea that further reform is possible will be killed stone dead, and with it any remaining purpose to New Labour beyond the occupation of office. If the Labour Party is unwilling to countenance reforms which, to a continental socialist used to continental health care systems, already look archaic, then it is no longer - if, with hindsight, it ever was - a party serious about reform.

Sage words, certainly. But now that we know the margins of 'victory' - seventeen votes - one wonders if they are really an accurate diagnosis. Certainly an outright defeat of the Foundation Hospitals Bill would have had exactly the symbolic significance Mr Pollard describes. But given the feebleness of the bill and the narrowness of the victory, one wonders how meaningful it is that this did not occur. Yes, it could have been worse, but how can things now get better? If this most enfeebled, most marginal effort to reform properly the National Health Service could have been overturned by just nine Labour backbenchers voting the other way, then what use is it as symbolism? The seventeen vote margin, won by yet another pledge to try a fox hunting ban, will not be a permanent majority existing to support Blairite reforms. It was the absolute maximum support New Labour could manage for the absolute minimum of reform. So how can anything more radical ever hope to pass? If Blair could only get a majority of seventeen in favour of the first step on the road to reform, then how does he propose to carry his party with him on the rest of the journey? I just can't see it happening, even if Labour's 400+ MPs were there for a decade, which of course they are not, a fair few soon to be voted out in favour of opposition members as reliably hostile to Labour as any of the party's own awkward squad.

I think Oliver Letwin was basically right when he declared last year his suspicions that Tony Blair secretly envied the Tories their radical new policies. Blair probably recognises that Conservative policies on the state sector are the only way Britain's public services will ever perform satisfactorily, but knows of course that his party will do all it can to reject the destruction of the last reason it has for existing: the belief that government and the state can more effectively and more equitably ensure people care and education than those people can themselves. So he is forced into a feebly slow, piecemeal approach to an issue where boldness above all is required. But now with even that piecemeal approach looking like it has reached the limits of what Labour backbenchers will accept, he can do nought but sit back and watch the schools deteriorate and the health service collapse as he waits to feel the full force of public anger.

I have said it before and I will say it again. Tony Blair is emphatically not going to go down in history as a great Prime Minister or as a great Labour leader. He has now been in office for the majority of the thirteen years since Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street, and has with his two landslide victories undoubtedly been the dominant figure of the post-Thatcher era. But what has he to show for any of this? What great effect has he had on British society? By this stage of the Thatcher government - late 1985 or so - inflation had been cut, the unions tamed, the miners smashed, cruise missiles planted, privatisation pushed through, rioters clubbed and income tax slashed. Even if one disagrees with these measures, no one contends that Thatcherism had anything but an enormous impact on British society. Blairism, by contrast, has nothing. A few foreign wars, a couple of toy parliaments, Bank of England independence ... and that's it. It's now far too late for anyone to claim Tony Blair as a radical, reformist Prime Minister with a domestic agenda that will revolutionise Britain. Even the most patient must now acknowledge that if he hasn't done these things in seven years, he never will.

Assuming Blair's historic legacy to the British people is not total government from Brussels, then I think it is safe now to conclude that five years after leaving office, Blair will have no recognisable legacy of any kind, any more than Harold Wilson did by 1981. There will by then be no Blairites, no swarms on left or right harking back to a golden Blairite age, and no one believing he had some great contribution left to make to Britain had he only been in office a little longer. Yes, he'll have won three wars. Yes, he'll have pushed through the odd constitutional reform. Yes, he'll have taken Labour from opposition to unprecedented electoral triumph. But as hard as it might be to imagine now, in terms of Tony Blair's impact on Britain and the legacy that will exist half a decade after he departs from Downing Street, it will scarcely be different than if he had never been born. Just wait and see.

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