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Leading Article: Enough of rhetoric - Mr Blair should make promises he can keep

THE ABIDING weakness of Tony Blair's Government is rhetorical excess. Despite being pathologically cautious on specific promises, the Prime Minister is increasingly found wanting when measured against his extravagant and sweeping claims of radical change.

After the fiasco of the cut in lone-parent benefit two years ago, Mr Blair went on the road to sell his message. It consisted of a simple proposition, "the welfare state isn't working". This newspaper warned him then that it was a dangerous proposition, not just because it undermined support for those parts of state support that are needed in any civilised society, but because he had no idea of the shape of change.

He liked the cut of Frank Field's jib, but had no idea what the saintly minister for welfare reform meant by his talk about ending dependency and insisting on responsibility. When he found out, Mr Field took his expensive schemes back to the back benches and in came Alistair Darling, a technocrat who can do political arithmetic.

But Mr Darling, too, made the mistake of over-claiming. He declared ringingly that he did not want to be remembered as just another social security secretary "who tinkered with the system, patched and mended it before handing it on to somebody else to do the same". We warned him, as well. Patching and mending are sound principles of the serious reformer. Grand schemes to remoralise society or end welfare benefit as we know it will end in mere tinkering anyway, having raised expectations and pleased no one.

And so it proves. As we report today, ministers have abandoned the idea of big changes to the housing benefit system, in favour of "streamlining".

Now, housing benefit is a prime target of the reformer's knife. The budget has grown out of all proportion to its original intentions, enriching landlords and creating perverse incentives, making it more likely than before that poor people will stay on benefit. Indeed, it is the obvious second target after disability benefits, where spending has tripled in 15 years, out of all proportion to any possible increase in real disablement.

But, in both cases, doing anything about the problem has proved much more difficult than identifying it. After the revolt by Labour MPs, plans to reform disability benefit are with the DSS's "patch and mend" section. Now reform of housing benefit has gone the same way. It turns out that "big bang" reform would have cost more in the short term than it would have saved in the medium term.

The dangers of radical rhetoric are not confined to welfare reform, however. Transport policy was last week's example, when John Prescott's grand notion of an integrated transport strategy was revealed as a mere form of words. He caused needless trouble for himself by suggesting that there was a crisis in transport and that he was going to solve it. The facts are that there is a lot of traffic on the roads, which sometimes causes congestion, and that there are technical questions of investment in public transport and who should pay for it. The only "radical" solution to both problems is to charge people for the use of limited road space, which is administratively difficult, electorally poisonous and not (yet) necessary. Result: the Deputy Prime Minister is left trying to hang on to his title by breaking up his department, which only leaves us to wonder why it was deemed a good idea to create such an unwieldy behemoth in the first place.

The huge department, by the way, has the following mission statement: "To promote sustainable development, offer everyone the opportunity of a decent home and promote well-being". That sort of immodesty leaves us wondering only what happened to the milk and honey.

Then there are museum charges. As The Independent on Sunday revealed yesterday, the sweeping promise to throw open all doors to all comers for free has turned out to be "too complicated". Technically, of course, it was not a promise, it was only a long-term goal, and it was not in Labour's manifesto. But, as with fox-hunting, most people tend not to notice such fine distinctions. An impression was given, and it has now been confounded. Thus all the good work that the Government has done for the arts and culture, and we are sure there must be plenty, has been eclipsed by a sense of disappointment.

The collapse of so many rhetorical souffles is puzzling, because in his shirt-sleeved, managing director persona, as opposed to his messianic mode, the Prime Minister was always careful to say that he would not promise what he could not deliver and that he could not put all the nation's problems right overnight. If he had stuck consistently to that message, he would have a better press today.