Leading Article: The Government's risky gap between rhetoric and reality

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THE "LINE in the sand" is one of the great malapropisms of contemporary British politics. John Major was forever trying to "draw a line under" his troubles only to have another lorry-load of ordure tipped over him. But he and his spinners sometimes got their Gulf war metaphors confused and said he was drawing a line in the sand - which hardly gave the intended impression of finality.

This week Tony Blair drew his line - on a beach in the Seychelles. A resolute article in yesterday's Independent, a no-nonsense speech in South Africa, and a tale of everyday muscular heroism rescuing a Danish holiday- maker from the treacherous currents, were designed to present the Prime Minister in his full "strong leader" regalia. Heavy casualties have been sustained, but the names of Mandelson, Robinson and Whelan have been inscribed on a wooden panel headed "They gave their all for New Labour", and the strong leader carries on, sadder but undaunted.

The tone is now like a comic-strip Churchill: "There are bound to be setbacks. We will face them, determinedly. There are bound to be attacks. We will respond to them, robustly." And there was one wonderfully double- edged sentence in yesterday's article: "We will continue to be for the future, not for the past." The trouble is that the past ain't what it used to be: the past used to mean the Conservatives and Old Labour; now New Labour has a past as well, and Mr Blair wants to distance himself from the unhappy bits of it, and especially the events of the past three weeks.

The Affair of Mr Mandelson's Mortgage cannot be quite so easily pushed into the dusty filing cabinet marked "Historical Interest Only", despite the Britannia building society's convenient absolution of the former Trade and Industry Secretary yesterday. For one thing, Mr Mandelson, in his attempt to put the affair behind him, said he wanted to get on with "rebuilding my political career".

It would be rash to predict Mr Mandelson's early return to the Cabinet, but it seems unlikely that Mr Blair will not find some use for his undoubted skills. Which means that questions about his conduct, and about his understanding of the central concept in public probity, the appearance of a conflict of interest, continue to be pertinent.

The damage done to the Government depends on the size of the gap between rhetoric and reality: they are the anode and the cathode and, when the electricity of public opinion is passed through them, the wider the gap the bigger the spark and the more destructive the explosion.

Mr Blair promised that his Government would be different, and he promised that things would be better. It may be unfair to discern no difference between Labour and its Tory predecessors, but the change has not been big enough or "radical" enough to justify New Labour's rhetoric.

Let us retain a sense of perspective. "Labour lead slumps to 23 points" is hardly the kind of headline which warns Mr Blair of impending meltdown. But The Independent's soundings among our panel of former Tory swing voters in Redditch, which we report today, suggest that the early cracks may run deep.

The Prime Minister yesterday pledged to concentrate on the "big picture" rather than scandal and gossip, but it is precisely in the areas of education and health that "Mondeo man and woman" feel most let down. On the National Health Service, the Government has been on the defensive from the day after the last election, when it emerged that its apparently modest aim of cutting waiting-lists below the level it had inherited would be difficult and expensive to meet. To be sure, the flu outbreak is being used as a lever by doctors in advance of the pay review - there is no reason, for example, to care whether refrigerated lorries have to be used briefly as temporary mortuaries.

But the same has happened in education, where an apparently modest "early" promise to cut infant class sizes will probably not be fulfilled in time for the next election. The amount of change visible to parents collecting their children from school, therefore, fails to match up to the impression that "smaller class sizes" would be the first step to educational nirvana.

All this could add to the impression of a government at the mercy of events, trailing behind Europe and powerless to influence the economy.

There has long been a contradiction between the Prime Minister's New Jerusalem style and his "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" mode. If Mr Blair really wants to draw a line under the explosions of the past few weeks - and the collateral damage caused - then he needs to drop Jerusalem and adjust his rhetoric to what can realistically be delivered.