Bold Tony pushes Timid Tony aside

Worth A Look, Public Sector, Frontier Centre

TONY BLAIR regards the general election as the start of his second real term, not his third. This startling admission says a lot about how he views his premiership, and what he still wants to do in his remaining three years or so in office.

All prime ministers have to be able to rationalise events and reinvent themselves in order to survive, and Mr Blair is a master of making the best of where he is. However disputable his analysis, it explains his current behaviour and intentions.

The Blair view is that the first term from 1997 until 2001 was a period of learning and proving that Labour could be trusted and competent in government (with thanks to Gordon Brown for providing a stable economic background). Yet much of the early approach to public services proved to be wrong: too many media-driven initiatives (recycled endlessly), too little funding ( a necessary short-term counterpart of offering reassurance) and, in particular, too little attention to reform. Mr Blair himself accepts that the early mantra about “standards, not structures” was mistaken, and that the pursuit of higher standards depends upon reform of structures.

On this view, it was only towards the end of the first term that the Blair team began to realise what was required: a combination of increased capacity (therefore much more money) and reform involving diversity of provision and greater individual choice over services. So the large increase in the number of doctors and nurses has been linked to more diagnostic and treatment centres. The patient-choice agenda has not gone smoothly, as the serious flaws in the computerised hospital booking system that the National Audit Office highlighted yesterday show. But waiting lists and times have been much reduced.

Similarly, while numeracy and literacy standards in primary schools improved in the first term, changes in the secondary system have only been introduced since 2001. The growing number of specialist schools and the smaller number of city academies have only recently started to produce better results.

According to Blairite revisionism, the Government has only got into its stride since 2001, after the mistakes and false starts of the first four years. That is crucially linked in Mr Blair’s view to the introduction of private sector methods, making individual officials responsible for managing specific projects. That is reflected both in the influence of Lord Birt and the role of Sir Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary, as chief executive of the delivery programme. And, hey presto, the Government is now, at last, heading in the right direction on public services. Hence, Mr Blair’s belief that the next four years will be the real second term.

There is something in this view, though it is obviously far too charitable to Mr Blair. Like its predecessors, the Blair Government has been engaged in the familiar exercise of rejecting inherited policies such as GP fundholding and city technology colleges, only to revive them in a modified form after a few years. The Blairite version is also highly selective, leaving out problem areas such as transport, housing and pensions, as well as the Brownite agenda, notably on tax credits to encourage work and reduce poverty.

Moreover, because of their almost complete inexperience and ignorance of the ways of Whitehall, the Blair team took a long time to get to grips with the levers of power. Mr Blair has also been obsessed with avoiding past Labour failures, and election defeats. His dislike of alienating Middle England and business made him cautious about developing new policies. He was too afraid of losing the political capital that he had built up, only to expend much of it on the Iraq war.

Paradoxically, the battles over the war have made Mr Blair more determined to take risks, “boldest when best”. That was reflected in his determination to press ahead with the tuition fees Bill. The passage of time has also increased Mr Blair’s awareness of his legacy and how far he has so far fallen short of matching the radical achievements of the Asquith and Attlee governments.

The Iraq war has been the shadow over the current term and may stain his legacy. Mr Blair is realistic about the risks, despite his positive comments about the coming election.

On Europe, Mr Blair is still far too upbeat about playing a leading role in the EU, acting as a bridge with Washington and winning the arguments over the direction of Europe. The proposed EU constitution does largely reflect the British view, and is criticised as such in much of the rest of the EU. But Mr Blair has put this at risk by calling a referendum for spring or early summer next year. A defeat would destroy his European hopes, and probably his premiership as well.

That leaves public services, and Mr Blair’s objective now is to achieve as lasting a transformation of the welfare state as the Attlee Government did. Hence, the current note of urgency. So expect more city academies, specialist schools, diversity of health provision, reform of invalidity benefits (to make them more conditional) and more choice. There is also what David Miliband, a key manifesto writer, yesterday called the “politics of empowerment”, supplementing the security and opportunity themes by involving local people and groups more with services.

So we have an impatient prime minister, determined to make his mark, while accepting the need to rub along with his Chancellor. Mr Blair still has a contribution to make, especially on public services. But his self-imposed clock is ticking. He no longer controls his destiny.