Leading Article: Mr Blair talks tough, but avoids the hard choices

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The Independent Culture
THE LABOUR Government started its Blackpool conference on the theme of tough love and Tony Blair kept it tough in his speech yesterday. Absent was any sign of the easing of pressure some party delegates had hoped for after the harsh messages of the "Iron" Chancellor Gordon Brown and the Industry Secretary Peter Mandelson.

Just the opposite. Instead of appealing to the party, its leader seemed to go out of his way to define the difference between the old and the new, between the Labour of opposition and the Labour in government. His government, he argued almost to the point of ramming it down delegates' throats, was doing what the Tories should have done on crime, welfare, interest rates and defence - only the Tories didn't have the courage.

It was an uncompromising message, intended to convey the impression that Mr Blair cannot be deterred from his quest to modernise Britain (and now Europe, and tomorrow the world). In Blairville, there is no alternative - and the Prime Minister left the clear impression that he is now confident enough to make enemies, be they complaining manufacturers, bolshie farmers, independent-minded Scots, whingeing teachers. But it's hard to argue with many of his targets. If welfare is ever to be brought under control, there must be more efficient means of directing it to those most in need. If educational standards are to be improved, bad headmasters will have to be sacked, just as good headmasters must be given competitive salaries. There were, however, signs that he is still holding back on some of the most radical moves. Power-sharing with the Lib Dems and attempting to build a centre-left force that would last a generation has been put aside - postponed, as his spokesmen say, in the better interests of wrapping it up with reform of the House of Lords - until after the next election.

Then there was Europe, the area where he sounded most tentative (but also most interesting). All the logic of Blair and Brown's position is that we should join the euro, and sooner rather than later. If England and Scotland are better for being in Britain, then Britain, in terms of his vision of community, is better for being part of the European monetary system. Blair seemed to believe that himself when delivering that part of his speech. Yet, disappointingly, he clearly felt unable to say it directly.

That was one disappointment. There were others as well, mostly sins of omission.There was no mention at all of tax (reform, let alone redistribution); no real appreciation of the seriousness of the management problems facing the Health Service; little about the questions of regulating financial flows, attacking monopolies, ensuring better service from the utilities, forcing the pace of corporation reform - all those detailed questions that must concern the management of economics today.

That, at heart, remains the worry about this man who has, unsurprisingly, become a model for modern politicians through Europe and even Japan. When he talks of community and compassion, even that politically dangerous concept of "family values", with a carefully worded warning to the press not to take advantage of it to poke into politicians' lives (slim chance), it is not a gesture to the values of Labour. He really believes it, but there is still something curiously ill-defined about the philosophy behind his values. That matters in Europe. It matters for the National Health, single-parent benefits and unemployment support. It matters in looking to the future and grappling with the possibility of recession, when public spending shoots up and incomes fall.

That is the hard business of government and the hardness of prime ministers in dealing with it. So we welcome the uncompromising tone and the drive for reform, but worry still that the future is quite as certain as Tony sees it.

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