We know what Tony wants - does he have the stomach for a fight?

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The Independent Culture
BEAMED BACK from Planet Tuscany, Tony Blair has chosen to rejoin the national conversation on a note of high intensity. There we were, ambling into September, when he jolted us awake by filling the Sunday papers with his demand for "a new national moral purpose" and a pledge to forge "a real 21st-century model country", no less.

Mr Blair has the important political gift of knowing how to accelerate the dramatic pace. His tan had not even begun to peel before he was seizing the commanding heights of Chequers to announce that "the modernising revolution has only just begun. I can really only be Prime Minister of a transforming, radical Government."

Connoisseurs of Blair-speak will be sensitive, however, to the edge of overstatement that creeps into his language when he is anxious. Self- confidence is one strong weapon in his armoury; a prescient sense of danger ahead is another. Mr Blair would not have been at such pains to tell us that he is a radical reformer bent on delivering an altered state in Britain - "a society that is without prejudice, but with rules and a sense of order" - were he not aware of the perils of being seen to fail the wider expectations of voters.

Midway through their first term of office is the point at which leaders notice that time is speeding up in Lewis Carroll fashion and, like the Red Queen, they are having to run faster and faster to stay in one place.

Wars and Ulster are the two great drains on government time, and Mr Blair has had both to contend with this year. Having promised that "1999 will be the year of delivery", he is under something of a self-inflicted lash.

The first stellar burst of energy after May 1997 saw exchange rate control delivered to the Bank of England, devolution in Scotland and Wales, and the beginning of the end of the old House of Lords. To these, every New Labour backbencher can add, at the flick of a soundbite switch, the minimum wage, trade union recognition, the New Deal, the working families tax credit and increased maternity entitlements. The trouble, as Mr Blair well knows, is that real people do not judge whether things have got better on the same narrow criteria as politicians or activists. They are far more demanding in the sweep of their desires, and less easy to fool.

Healthily uninterested in the ritual sacrifices or the buzz-words that produce Pavlovian applause from the activists, they want to see the big fixtures of daily existence working better: schools, hospitals, public transport, civic amenities and secure streets. The public sector, sorely neglected by Conservative governments, has become the focus of national dissatisfaction. We can tolerate only so much private affluence and public squalor. The state of our streets, the lack of amenities, eats into the soul.

The middle classes feel unhappy because they end up spending ever higher proportions of their income avoiding the public services. Poorer people who cannot afford to pay for escape routes through the housing market and school fees resent being consigned to the leftovers and begin to complain that Labour governments have no time for their core voters.

Mr Blair knows that the coalition of traditional and new support that bequeathed him his landslide can easily turn into a coalition of grievance and offer the Conservatives a rope ladder back to popularity. Yes, I know that it sounds unlikely. But they cannot stay in basket-case mode for ever. Wait and see.

The prospect of disappointment weighs heavy on the wiser heads in New Labour. In the new edition of his anatomy of New Labour, The Blair Revolution, Mr Blair's shrewdest strategist, Philip Gould, points out that Labour governments work under far greater pressure of expectations than do Tory ones.

Conservatives can get by on competence, and forfeit office only when seen to have lost that reputation. Labour is expected to take us all a little bit closer to heaven on earth.

The danger of dissonance between the language of government and the hopes of the electorate is real. Official rhetoric still emphasises incremental change based around boasts of how much more "we" are spending than the mean old Tories. The arguments are hoary with overuse and entirely unconvincing. We want to see absolute signs of improvement around us.

Mr Blair must begin the next term with a clearer idea of how public services are to be reformed than has so far emerged from the rather cautious New Labour agenda so far. He should be wary of procrastination. The second term will not be a blank page on which he can write unencumbered. Mistakes and omissions in policy made in the first term will have to be redressed before the grand reforming can begin.

No one could doubt Mr Blair's personal commitment to improving state education in Britain. But New Labour has already allowed itself to be caught up in myriad contradictions, welcoming private-sector solutions for failing schools, while enhancing the grip of local education authorities in the mainstream, promising greater specialisation - which means selection in comprehensives, while allowing the left free rein in attacking the remaining grammar schools and partly selective schools. The overall trajectory is still far from clear.

If the reformist thrust of education is mixed up, the future shape of the NHS is shrouded in darkness. Running the NHS has become the art of crisis management. How we are to pay for the expansion of the service so that it matches high expectations of a reliable, high-quality service, goes primly undiscussed. When it is finally opened up, all hell will be let loose, since sections of the Labour Party would rather see a badly functioning NHS that they can nominally claim is free and universal, than a more efficient and flexible one that demands alterations in a funding structure set up half a century ago.

Reforms are not value-neutral, nor are they likely to proceed without some major rows about whether they amount to reconstruction or destruction. Already, the progressive coalition is fracturing along the faultlines of egalitarianism versus meritocracy, state versus private sector, free market versus deregulation.

Mr Gould argues that the left should make its peace with the Blairite approach, because this is the only form of radicalism it is likely to get, and because the aims of modernisers and "Old" Labour are essentially the same. It is a nice line in party diplomacy. But I doubt whether critics of Blairite solutions will see it that way, or whether there is much point trying to argue about irreconcilables. Not all values and interests can live happily together; not all radicals want to uproot the same certainties.

Great reformers are controversialists: the figures we can still be bothered to argue about long after they are gone. Mr Blair has the calibre and determination to join their ranks. All he needs now is the stomach for a fight.

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