Tony's not for turning

Blair looks laid back but he won't stray from his agenda. Anthony Bevins, political editor, reports
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ANYONE who sees Tony Blair working in his shirt-sleeves from a couch in a small and unassuming ante-room of No 10 knows the difference he has made to the style of Government. Relaxed, confident and determined to keep the "big picture" firmly in his sights, he has made remarkable progress over the past year, not least in bringing about a revolution of constitutional reforms, from devolution through to freedom of information.

The Good Friday agreement on Northern Ireland, the start that has been made on lifting the beef ban, publication of a green paper on welfare reform, Bank of England independence, the handgun ban, and the investment of the windfall tax in welfare to work are just a small part of the momentous changes introduced in the past year. Yet, a deep-seated cynicism, if not detestation, pervades parts of the Labour Party when Mr Blair's first- year record is discussed.

The Prime Minister's lengthy anniversary letter to party members last week may have said: "The support of all Labour members, young and old, new and long-standing, is vital both to maintain the momentum of this government and to win the next election victory," but the most snide and venomous criticism of Mr Blair and the first Labour administration for a generation comes today from Labour MPs and party members, as often as not speaking anonymously.

But as Jack Straw - one of the Blair favourites - said in a speech this week, the Prime Minister has no interest in the ideological battles of the past, nor the clashes of the traditional class-based left-right divide. "Indeed, where we can work with other parties or with people without a party political background, we will do so," Mr Straw said.

Mr Blair has moved beyond ideology, beyond party, and is moving to a new way of doing things. "What marks us out from the politics of the past," Mr Straw said, "is that we will not hesitate to do what is right and in the best interests of the country as a whole."

If that means treading on the toes of the old Labour left, or the trades unions, or any other traditional Labour pressure group, Mr Blair will do it without fear or favour. To the Labour critics, it seems that only the CBI, the royals, and Rupert Murdoch can expect more favours than fairness demands. The bitterness that generates among old and faithful supporters is natural, but it will not deflect Mr Blair from his project: a society in which economic efficiency and social justice go hand in hand.

But the efficiency side of the equation is the one that creates most internal Labour dissent; fuelled by the demand for more money to be spent on the poor and the needy today, rather than tomorrow, and paid for by tax increases if necessary. Mr Blair, as always, wants a balance; as he said in last week's party letter: "The whole government shares Gordon Brown's determination to get the public finances on a sound footing. We want public money spent on the things we care about, not on paying the interest on debts built up under the Tories. Nor do we want spending today to become cuts tomorrow."

Mr Blair's love affair with fiscal prudence drives some members of his party to distraction. But his devotion is no passing fad or fancy infatuation; it is absolute. Whether the voters will acknowledge the change and reward Labour with another five-year, full-term majority depends on fickle gratitude, the speed with which William Hague can lick his party into shape, and the unforseeable crises that will inevitably batter government popularity over the next four years.

For the moment, the voters appear more convinced than the party members, inside the Commons and out. A MORI survey carried out for the Sun at the weekend suggested a staggering five per cent swing to Labour since the election last year, putting Labour on a 54 per cent rating. But only two in five of those questioned felt that Labour had kept its election promises on health, education and jobs, and an Independent poll carried out by Harris Research found that only 49 per cent felt the Government had on balance been honest and trustworthy.

Yet the Prime Minister is unimpressed by polls like these: he believes strongly that if he and the Government do the right things, the voters will re-elect them. Neither party dissent, nor public conflict will deter him from the agenda he has set himself for welfare reform - the most tendentious issue he could tackle as a Labour leader.

In his letter to party members, Mr Blair said: "It would be easy to put complex and controversial areas like welfare reform on the back burner. But if we are to make a difference, we need to start now." This followed his comment in the foreword to the March green paper: "Work for those who can; security for those who cannot."

Now, party members are being told: "We believe that society has a responsibility to help people in genuine need, who are unable to look after themselves. But nobody would deny that people have a responsibility to help provide for themselves when they can or that a job is the best route out of poverty for those who can work...

"It is about delivering a more efficient system. Our aim is to fight poverty, not increase it; narrow social division, not widen it; and extend opportunities, not deny them." The public and the party should not be deceived by that ready charm and the shirt-sleeve style. Mr Blair intends to change society, as he has changed his party, and as far as he is concerned, those that do not like it will have to lump it.

Promises, promises - but have they been kept?

pledge 1: class sizes

THERE has been a significant advance in fulfilling Tony Blair's promise to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds to a maximum of 30 by the end of the Parliament: by September, ministers will have kept their pledge to cut class numbers for a quarter of infants being taught in classes of more than 30.

The class reductions are possible because pounds 22m being spent on benefiting around 100,000 children in 65 local authorities is coming from abolishing the Assisted Places Scheme, which subsidised pupils from poor backgrounds at fee-paying schools.

It will be comparatively easy to fulfil the first stage of the pledge, but councils expect problems in a couple of years as parents clamour for places at popular schools and are turned away because classes are too big.

Ministers issued guidelines this week urging authorities to expand popular schools rather than putting extra children in unpopular ones. However, it may not always be physically possible to build extra classrooms or adapt schools to meet parental demand.

Difficulties may also arise if there are not enough extra children to make another class and the nearest alternative school is, say, five miles away. Will a school be able to persuade the parents of the 31st five-year- old to send her to the second school?

Pledge rating: 5/10

Judith Judd

Education Editor

PLEDGE 2: YOUNG OFFENDERS

IT WILL take until the end of the century before the full impact of new government powers to speed up youth justice is fully felt - although an order to the courts to sharpen up their act has already made its mark on the time it takes for a case to be heard.

The Home Office has set a 71-day target time for dealing with a young offender from the point of arrest to sentencing - the national average was 142 days in 1996 - but the legislation has yet to come into force.

Pilot schemes where courts will be set strict time limits and solicitors, probation officers, and the police could face fines for dragging their feet, will not start until October 1999. However, publication of "best practice" guidelines for courts seems to have spurred some magistrates into action. In North Hampshire, for example, the time from a young offender being charge to sentenced has dropped from 133 days to 89.

The key legislation, the Crime and Disorder Bill, will allow courts to lock up persistent child offenders as young as 12 while waiting for their cases to be heard. Other initiatives such as replacing repeat cautioning with a final warning, parenting orders, and child curfew orders, are also expected to have a knock-on effect on the number of teenagers going to court.

For 12 month's work, Jack Straw's output is impressive.

Pledge rating: 6/10

Jason Bennetto

Crime Correspondent

PLEDGE 3: NHS WAITING LISTS

MAXIMUM embarrassment to ministers and maximum pain to the Treasury is the legacy of the pledge to cut NHS hospital waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000. Instead of falling, the lists have risen by more than 100,000 in the past year and may rise further before they turn around. The cost of meeting the pledge will take a sizeable chunk of the NHS budget.

Frank Dobson, health secretary, admitted six months after the election that waiting lists are like an oil tanker in being slow to turn around. But even he did not expect it to be so slow or so difficult to achieve. With waiting lists now standing at 1.3m - a record - he has pledged to reduce them to their pre-election level of 1.2m by the end of March 1999.

To meet this target, Mr Dobson is allocating pounds 320m to health authorities in England for cutting the lists.

Privately, ministers concede that the waiting-list pledge was a mistake. Getting lists down is possible if you are prepared to throw money at the problem. Keeping them down is a harder, perhaps impossible, task.

Pledge rating: 0/10

Jeremy Laurance

Health Editor

PLEDGE 4: employment

GETTING 250,000 under-25-year-olds off benefit and into work is one promise the Government was unable to keep for the most ironic of reasons: the economic recovery under the previous administration mopped up more than half the potential "client group".

When the pledge was made, some 250,000 young people between 18 and 24 had been out of work for six months or more. Now the "snapshot" figure for those who qualify for help is 118,000. Over the next 12 months, however, the Government expects 300,000 to go through its flagship New Deal scheme. By the end of the Parliament, Whitehall calculates that more than 1m will have passed through the system. Presumably, the manifesto's prediction that they will all go "into work" should not be taken too literally.

The money not used for the 18 to 24-year-olds has meant extra resources for other Welfare to Work programmes.

Ministers have been true to their word on the content of the New Deal scheme, which will receive pounds 2.6bn over the next four years from the windfall tax from the privatised utilities.

Pledge rating: 6/10

Barrie Clement

Labour Editor

PLEDGE 5: income tax

NO INCOME tax rises, low interest rates and low inflation. There is a reason. Gordon Brown's favourite words are "prudent" and "long-term", and this pledge smacks of both.

Tough public spending plans are the price of Labour's determination not to hit the middle classes with higher income taxes. Labour has not forgotten the Tories' tax bombshell attack in the 1992 election.

The Chancellor has more or less stuck to the promise not to raise income tax, but it has frayed slightly at the edges because he has further reduced the rate at which home buyers get tax relief on their mortgage interest payments and is also phasing out the Married Couples Allowance.

Mr Brown has also raised other taxes, including employers' national insurance contributions for higher-paid employees. The future looks likely to hold other backdoor tax increases.

The Chancellor's dramatic decision to let the Bank of England set interest rates is the means of delivering the rest of the pledge. For all the controversy over the strong pound, and how much the five interest rate rises since May have contributed to it, the level of rates at 7.25 per cent, and underlying inflation at 2.6 per cent, is far lower than at the same stage of previous business cycles.

These achievements depend on the legacy of improved economic management set in place by Kenneth Clarke, but the new Monetary Policy Committee should do an even better job of keeping inflation and borrowing costs low.

Pledge rating: 8/10

Diane Coyle

Economics Editor

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