Blair forges stronger ties with Pretoria

TONY BLAIR last night flew back to London having carefully mapped out his course for his Government in South Africa.

Many of the long-term questions raised by the resignation of Peter Mandelson, one of the principal architects of New Labour, were answered in the same room as Harold Macmillan's winds of change speech.

He is expected to use a live interview on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost today to reinforce the message that there will be no change of direction, no surrender to Old Labour tax-and-spend policies, and no slowing in the pace of reform, in spite of growing opposition to some policies from his own MPs.

It was appropriate that Mr Blair should have given voice to his commitment to the "third way" in South Africa. He was constantly reminded by his hosts that post-apartheid South Africa is engaged in change, and that the Mandela administration is in the process of "reinventing government".

The "third way" was publicly embraced at a meeting with Mr Blair by Thabo Mbeki, the deputy president, who is due to take over as his country's leader from Nelson Mandela after South Africa's second general election later this year. After signing a joint declaration of intent for arms sales, Mr Blair said: "Even though the scale of the challenge is different, some of the ideas that we put forward are similar and we can learn from each other."

Mr Blair's visit not only strengthened the trade and aid links with South Africa, but also reinforced the political links with the ANC government. There will be stronger party-to-party links after last week, and Labour will be expected to help the ANC in fighting the next general election with the techniques it borrowed from Bill Clinton's Democratic presidential campaign team.

It is an alliance which could have important benefits for Britain in all of Africa, which Mr Mandela's special mission to Libya over the Lockerbie suspects demonstrated.

South Africa is threatened by its own economic downturn, exacerbated by rising crime and appalling health problems. But it is implementing Blairite reforms, including cuts in social security benefits for the disabled, that, one Blair aide said, "would make Paul Dacre [editor of the Daily Mail] blanch".

The warmth of the relations with the ANC was palpable at Mr Blair's meeting with Nelson Mandela at his state residence outside Pretoria. Where John Major was treated with the respect due a visiting British Prime Minister, "Tony", as Mr Mandela called him, was treated like a son.

Mr Mbeki, who can expect to be declared president later this year, is in Mr Mandela's mould. But the problems confronting him will be greater. There is a need to meet the expectations of the blacks for proper housing and sanitation. He was wary of committing South Africa to becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council because of the crippling cost of assuming the role of Africa's policeman, but the country is destined to play a greater world role.

Mr Blair saw at first hand the poverty in Alexandra township and the plight of children with Aids. The Blairs have sponsored a six-year-old child at a care home in Cape Town since an earlier trip in 1996 and were visibly moved by the visit to see her.

Britain's problems, compared with South Africa's, seem slight and Mr Blair made little of the difficulty caused by the loss of two ministers, the rivalry between the Brown and Blair camps, and the pending resignation of the Chancellor's aide. "These things happen, but government goes on," he said.

However, there were clear signals that he wants to see Peter Mandelson return to front-line politics to help the Government to deliver the New Labour agenda when the dust has settled.

He intends to use a series of highly controversial measures - starting with a crackdown on young offenders - to focus the Government on a radical, reforming programme, and take ministers' minds off the Cabinet in-fighting. His declaration of brotherly love for Gordon Brown may seem a spin doctor's ploy to put sticking plaster over the wounds, but the message was intended partly for John Prescott for proclaiming his own Keynesian alliance with the Chancellor.

Mr Prescott felt wounded by the false interpretation that he was openly challenging Mr Blair over the direction of the Government. The deputy Prime Minister, in fact, was thinking about his own department's direction, but the episode served to bring simmering doubts about Blairism into the open, and Mr Blair has returned to face them head on.

Where Mr Major tried to manage dissent in his party, Mr Blair appears bent on confronting it. "Call me authoritarian if you like, but I'm right," was the message from the Parliament building in Cape Town. The ANC leadership would probably agree.