Should Mr Blair really ask us to forget about the scandals?

There is a growing feeling that ministers are not delivering on promises to improve public services
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The Independent Culture
AS MPS returned from their Christmas break yesterday, even those in different parties could agree on one thing: we are back to real politics. The Blair honeymoon, whose death has often been predicted in the past 20 months, is finally over.

But as Tony Blair tries to shrug off his "Black Christmas" by getting back to business, he is danger of jumping from one hole into another. His fight-back strategy is to turn the media spotlight away from personalities and back to policies. Gordon Brown, in the first of what Downing Street billed as a series of keynote speeches by Cabinet ministers, proclaimed that 1999 will be "the year of delivery".

Of course, Blair can be forgiven for thinking that anything is better than the media focusing on the aftermath of the Peter Mandelson affair or the entrails of Robin Cook's first marriage. And it is true that the divisions at the heart of the Government are much more about personality than about ideology, despite John Prescott's serious doubts about Blair's desire for ever closer union with the Liberal Democrats and the Prime Minister's apparent attempt to rehabilitate Mandelson when the ink on his resignation letter is barely dry.

The problem for the Government is that, by switching the focus back on to education, health and the economy, ministers may be storing up bigger long-term problems by fuelling expectations they cannotdeliver. There is already growing public feeling that Blair is not delivering the improved public services on which he won the 1997 election. Couple that with a worsening economy, as evidenced by yesterday's gloomy figures on manufacturing, and it makes an explosive cocktail.

Labour's private polling, which Blair continued to study in microscopic detail even after winning his landslide, reveals the Government's potential Achilles heel, even though it remains way ahead of the Tories in the race for the next election.

It shows that the gloss surrounding the announcement of pounds 40bn extra for health and education last summer has worn off. This has been replaced by people's own experiences; and they feel increasingly that the ministerial rhetoric is not measuring up to the problems in our hospitals and schools. It is no coincidence that, according to Labour's surveys, there has been a sharp increase since last July in the number of people who believe the Government is "getting too arrogant and out of touch" and "getting sleazy".

Perhaps the most chilling section of the Labour polling now in Mr Blair's in-tray is the one about how voters remember the Tories' time in office: the top five memories are "neglect of health and education"; "sleaze"; "out of touch"; "splits and divisions" and "boom and bust." With the exception of "boom and bust", many voters may feel the four other slogans apply to the present Government after the turmoil of the past three weeks. And as the economy worsens this year, even Labour's hard-won economic credentials may be in jeopardy.

The current crisis in the hospitals is potentially even more damaging. The voters are seeing the reality with their own eyes; one friend of mine was appalled to hear a hospital registrar, as he struggled to cope with patients waiting for treatment on trolleys, berating the Government's obsession with cutting waiting lists (a key election pledge), at the expense of short-term pressures such as the flu outbreak.

Of course, ministers will argue that the Labour polling strengthens their resolve to tackle what Tony Benn calls "the real ishoos", and hope they will at least get some credit for tackling the deep-seated problems in health and education. But the option of blaming the inheritance on the Tories is no longer viable. The public wants to see real evidence of sustained improvements to public services, not to have their expectations raised by ministers making promises they cannot keep.

Blair is almost certainly right that, in the long run, the voters will care much more about bread-and-butter issues than about Cook's private life. What worries him more is that, engraved on John Major's political tombstone - and in Blair's own mind - are the words: "Divided parties lose elections."

Since Labour won power, its internal divisions have not really registered with the voters - until the past three weeks. This is largely because they see Blair as a strong leader who keeps his party in check (in sharp contrast with Major in the run-up to the 1997 election). This is why Blair does not really mind being portrayed as a "control freak". Although the label is causing real worries inside his party (which should not be underestimated), control freakery evidently plays pretty well with Middle England, where it is seen as strong leadership.

Similarly, Mr Blair is billing this week's measures on welfare reform and tackling crime as "tough" and even "authoritarian". During his visit to South Africa, he was happy to tell journalists that he feared a backbench rebellion over social security changes, even though there is little immediate sign of one. Anything to get the media to write about policies rather than personalities. "What the hell could we focus on apart from public services and our reforms?" one exasperated Blairite asked me yesterday, admitting that the danger signals on the NHS were deeply worrying.

Although Downing Street denies that this week's flurry of ministerial speeches amounts to a relaunch of the Government, that is effectively what Blair is doing (indeed, many of the "new policies" being unveiled have been launched before). As such, it has eerie echoes of the fight- backs ordered by Major, which usually hit the buffers pretty quickly.

The only comfort for Mr Blair is that the Tories have not yet reaped any benefit from the Government's troubles; the only beneficiaries are the Lib Dems, no doubt to Prescott's horror. My guess is that a huge proportion of Labour's still sky-high opinion poll ratings is due to Blair's enduring personal popularity. At the same time, the Tories are suffering from the perception of William Hague as a weak leader of a still divided party, as well as those unhappy memories of their 18 years in office.

But Blair knows that Hague and his party may not remain devalued currency for ever. Labour strategists fear that the growing disillusionment with the Government will take its toll on Blair and his party.

They are right to be worried. Blair argues that he could not be expected to put right the problems of the past 18 years in just 18 months. But the voters will soon want some hard evidence that things really are getting better.

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