Why is the Reverend Blair so afraid of unrest in the pews?

Mr Blair has never lost the suspicion that the coalition that elected him was very wide, but rather shallow

HERE IS the conundrum at the heart of Mr Blair's Britain: if the Prime Minister and his approach to Government are so popular, why is he so anxious? The economy appears to have skirted recession, and unemployment remains blissfully low by European standards. The opinion polls reflect a population that feels more at ease in Tonyland than it did in latter- day Toryland. A shrunken Conservative army mills around and jabs at its war drums but most of its swords are made of cardboard. The Labour majority is huge enough to repel even the best orchestrated of mutinies. "We should have your problems," would be the envious response of other European leaders.

Yet as he enters the mid-term, Mr Blair looks and sounds jumpy. He lashed out at the public sector last week, only to lash back in again after John Prescott bellowed his distress. "Even though I am from the modernising wing of the party and John is from the traditional wing, we believe the same things," said Mr Blair. This is premier cru sophistry. One might as well say that a redneck fundamentalist Christian has the same beliefs as the most liberal Church of Englander in that both subscribe to the view that Christ walked on earth 2,000 years ago. That does not mean that they draw the same conclusions about how to live now.

Unlike fundamentalist and moderate Christians, Old and New Labour are obliged to share a pew in the broad church of the Reverend Blair. The occasional eruption is inevitable, followed by the sign of peace issued through gritted teeth. Mr Prescott's attachment to "traditional values in a modern setting" is a brilliant piece of oratory. It both validates New Labour in the eyes of those who want to cling to the party's roots, while implicitly setting limits to how much change is tolerable.

The formula can be adapted to different requirements. When Mr Prescott thunders it out to a rapturous hall at Labour conference, it commands a useful endorsement of Blairite ways from people who would otherwise be profoundly suspicious of them. When he uses it as he did last week, it is a retaliatory missile. This time it was deployed to tell the "faceless wonders", otherwise known as Mr Blair's closest advisors and spin-doctors, where to get off.

"There is always one who kisses and one who turns the cheek," is a French adage that goes for affairs of politics as well as love. After the contretemps over whether the public service is a pinnacle of 20th century achievement or a basket-case immune to alteration, it was the Labour leader who sought to plant a reconciliatory kiss on his deputy's pudgy cheek and not vice versa. This leads me to conclude that, for all the enthusiasm in the Downing Street vanguard for bashing him in the reshuffle, they would like to see his responsibility for transport pass to the pragmatic New Labourite John Reid - Mr Prescott has nothing much to fear.

True, he will be stripped of one of his Pooh-Bah functions - overseeing campaigning. But this is a small sacrifice. Indeed, if anyone should be worried about the drift of events, it is Jack Straw, whose previously seamless understanding with Mr Blair has been sorely tested by the rank incompetence of the Home Office over the changes to the issuing of passports. Now Mr Straw finds himself charged with incompetence on a highly popular issue, at the very time Mr Blair is getting a bee in his bonnet about the need to deliver competent government. The Home Secretary will also be on the receiving end of the boundless hassle his department is likely to accrue from Mr Blair's pledge to revive the manifesto pledge to ban hunting with hounds.

The faceless men denounced by Mr Prescott are not, however, groundless in their criticisms levelled against the performance of his super-ministry. The Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions might be renamed the Department of Multiple Horrors. The railways are in a state of chaotic unfinished revolution, the Tube is London's four-letter word and motorists in the South-East embark on road journeys expecting to spend as much time stationary as moving. Visiting the DETR last week, I found that the gleaming glass construction, so very New Britain, was undergoing a failure of the air-conditioning system on the hottest day of the year. If they can't control the climate of Mr Prescott's inner sanctum, what chance do they have of making the trains run on time, or the roads passable?

Another clash between Mr Prescott and No 10 beckons later this summer when reductions in regional development aid, demanded by the EU, come into force. The Deputy Prime Minister believes that this should be the spur to regional devolution. Mr Blair believes that he has done quite enough devolving for the time being.

After the shock of being proved fallible in the European elections, New Labour has entered what one senior backbencher calls "headless chicken territory". It is concerned about a drop in party membership and the prospect of traditional voters staying at home. But it is not entirely sure what to do about it. Mr Blair's instinct is not to let the party's sensibilities distort key areas of policy making. But he is too cautious a politician to cast any section of the vote overboard. Hence the sudden revival of a commitment to ban hunting with hounds. This is one of the few subjects on which the Government can delight its own activists without alienating a middle England increasingly sympathetic to animal rights.

His fine political antennae are attuned not to the way things are at present, but to two year's time when the next general election is held and to the early part of the second term, when he is planning to hold the referendum on Britain's membership of Emu. The more myopic modernisers went round prophesying that 1997 would herald the arrival of an unchallenged centre-left supremacy and that the Tory party was beyond resuscitation. Seductive as these propositions that glittered in the May dawn were, neither was sound. Enthusiasm for proportional representation and a de facto merger with the Lib Dems has duly waned. Conservatism is still a ragged and tentative force, but it has found a solid flank of attack as the party that opposes British membership of the euro.

Mr Blair has never lost the underlying suspicion that the coalition that elected him was very wide, but rather shallow. He is under strong pressure from the public to produce a better, broader quality of life in Britain. If he is seen to fail, no amount of style, grace or statesmanship will save him from a slide into electoral vulnerability. In the last few weeks, he has realised that the pace of delivery threatens not to match the flair of New Labour's early promises and that too few of his inner team have any clear idea what to do about the disjunction. The furrows deepening in Mr Blair's brow are not without foundation.

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