`Power-crazed' Tony Blair needs a better reason to centralise power

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The Independent Culture
ANN WIDDECOMBE is the Jennifer Paterson of politics: a resolutely outspoken fat lady who shoulders on the burden of being straighter and more uncompromising than the mealy-mouthed rest of us. Britain has a long tradition of respect for spirited battleaxe figures, from the picture post-card landlady to the later Joan Sims, and the sort of indestructible grannies who handbag unwary politicians on walkabouts.

Tapping astutely into this vein of national affection, Ms Widdecombe has turned herself from a figure of crude dislike into everyone's favourite gorgon. Left-liberal journalists sent to interview her all come away saying that she's mad - which is the lazy way of saying someone's political viewpoint is violently at odds with our own - but that there is something oddly likable and admirable about her.

In the great contest of acting summer leaders, she has easily bested John Prescott. Her scatter attack of insults on Tony Blair and all his works might look random, but far from it. Ms Widdecombe is figuring out how to breach the Prime Minister's frustratingly solid defences. She was on top pit-bull form at the weekend, rounding on Mr Blair as an "an arrogant, cynical hypocrite who thinks he can get away with anything".

The proximate cause of this immoderate outburst was the planned elevation of George Robinson to a peerage, which has the useful consequence of causing a by-election in his Scottish seat during the SNP's annual conference, the better to take the edge off the Nationalist challenge to Labour. It is unusual for a senior Tory to storm to the aide of the Nats before a by-election, but Ms Widdecombe had other bigger game in mind.

Through the fog of William Hague's leadership, a strategy for fighting the next election is beginning to emerge. Leading Conservatives have been divided (now there's a surprise) about whether to focus criticism on Mr Blair personally or to target the performance of the Government. Those wary of firing directly at the Prime Minister claim that the weak flank of the Government is policy delivery and that the thrust of any assault should be the performance of the Government and New Labour as a whole. They worry that Mr Blair's "certain something" will allow him to stand apart from the Government's reputation and that personal hostility to Mr Blair will be counter-productive.

Ms Widdecombe, however, leads an increasingly voluble camp in the Shadow cabinet which disagrees with this view. She believes that the party's only hope of substantially improving its performance next time round is to shine a harshly critical light on the figure of the Blessed Tony himself. William Hague, initially unconvinced, has come to believe that his best hope of a substantially improved result - his only hope of survival as leader - lies in emphasising that Mr Blair is not as good as he looks, too good to be true; in short, a bit of a phoney. Hence his summer stand- in's attack on the absent Prime Minister at the weekend for being manipulative, Machiavellian and guilty of "quite blatant moral hypocrisy".

Such violent invective harbours some risk of a boomerang effect on those who hurl it. When Ms Widdecombe condemns Mr Blair for cultivating a moral image while being "beset by allegations concerning their financial probity and personal conduct", the mind undertakes an instant synapse leap to reflect on the charges raised against Tory Treasurer Michael Aschcroft and the entertaining personal conduct of a number of high-profile Tories during the last government.

The other accusation, that Mr Blair is power-crazed, is more intriguing because it has potential to produce some uncommon coalitions. The Labour left has always complained that he is a control freak because he was determined to ensure that they never got anywhere near control of his party again. But a growing number of middle-ranking New Labourites are complaining about the creation of a "parallel civil service" which would remove key decisions from ministers and over-rule departmental policies.

Tony Wright, a previously loyal Blairite and chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, has called on Mr Blair to appear before the committee to justify the expansion of unaccountable advisers in Number 10. The last reshuffle dissatisfied a number of those usually blameless on-message Blairite middle ranks who feel that upheaval was visited on their departments at the cavalier behest of Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's Downing Street Chief of Staff, without due regard for their actual performance while in office.

If she can stay her outrage a moment, Ms Widdecombe might reflect that the model for all of this was the greatest battleaxe of them all, namely her role-model, Lady Thatcher. The Prime Minister and his closest allies are also strongly influenced by la Thatch's record of kneecapping ministers and over-ruling their departmental policies. They do, however, overlook one key difference between their own position and hers. She behaved ruthlessly with the departments because she was pursuing, albeit with daemonic zeal, her core agenda of reversing the state's encroachement across so many areas of national life and defeating trade union power. They were two unmistakable aims. Whatever you thought of them, you could not fail to notice where she was headed. When ministers or civil servants objected to her chosen direction, she simply rolled her Downing Street tank over them.

As he plans for the second term, Mr Blair is fixated on the need for Downing Street to maintain control of the presentation of policy and to ensure harmonious, "joined-up government". I find it hard to fault the logic on either count. The days when we worried about the sensibilities of slighted ministers or squashed civil servants are gone, if they ever existed.

The question is: what is all this for? What are the changes that Mr Blair is so determined to implement that he needs this powerful machine at the centre to implement them? Public sector reform offers some prime candidates: be it a wholesale restructuring of our inflexible state education system, a far-reaching overhaul of the NHS and how we pay for it, or even a return to the great unfinished business of restructuring the welfare state. Any of these would involve a conflict not only with public sector interests, but with the ministers and the Sir Humpheys who prefer muddling through to grand redesigns.

At present, the emphasis of the centralising argument is on the importance of selling the work of the Government, whether good, bad or indifferent. A lot less thinking has gone into deciding what profound and lasting alterations Mr Blair ultimately wants to make to the quality and sustainability of public service, the reform of which should be his version of Thatcher's revolution. It is not yet too late to develop this sense of purpose and make it happen. But it is far from being too early either.