Blair is on a mission. Driven by Thatcherite zeal. And the sick and disabled are next on the list

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The real threat of an even deeper Labour split increased yesterday when Tony Blair insisted he would not be deflected from further welfare changes. With William Hague now opposing cuts for the disabled, Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, examines the Prime Minister's Thatcherite zeal for rolling reform.

The risks of a Government with a 179-vote Commons majority being defeated remain slim, but the Tories warned yesterday that they would join forces with the growing band of Labour rebels standing out against cuts in benefits for the sick and disabled.

As The Independent reported on Saturday, Mr Blair is undaunted by last week's revolt over lone parents' benefit, and is determined to press on with the project to create a new, leaner welfare state in which people are more actively encouraged to get work.

In an interview with GMTV's Sunday Programme, the Prime Minister was asked by Alastair Stewart whether Welfare to Work was the big idea, and - in an updated version of Margaret Thatcher's iron ruling - whether "the gentleman is not for turning?"

Mr Blair said: "It is the big idea and we mustn't be deflected from carrying out the reforms that are necessary to provide opportunity for people and get the investment into our schools and our hospitals."

He added: "We have got a very simple choice. We either carry on as a country paying out more, and more, and more money on social security, with a large group of people, some people often in their 40s who are never going to work again, have not got the slightest chance then of doing anything other than trying to eke out an existence on benefit.

"You either carry on with that situation, with all the cost, all the deprivation, and the loss of opportunity, or you say `No, we are going to take the measures and spend the money necessary to try and give those people the chance, if they are able to, to get off benefit and into work, to gain the independence that many of them actually want'."

Mr Blair also echoed one of the arguments made by Baroness Thatcher in defence of her programme of rolling privatisation - that having initially resisted change, people learned to appreciate the benefits.

"It is important to realise," he said, "that in all the changes that we have ever made over the past few years, there have been people that have opposed it, and some of those people later have come round to see why it was the right thing to do, and I believe that that is the case again."

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, last night cited the charges of betrayal that had greeted the expulsion of Militant Trotskyists from the party in the 1980s, and the revision of Clause 4 of the party constitution. "Reforms which were criticised as reckless or revolutionary soon became the received wisdom...

"The Welfare to Work programme will create real opportunities for those on benefits and without work. It is not just about changes in cash transfers but in the whole psychological climate of dependence and low self-esteem.

"Because we are doing things for the first time and inevitably making some difficult decisions, some are bound to find the process uncomfortable. But when this great programme takes effect, the most common question will be: Why did we not act even sooner?"

But with ministers telling The Independent that a cut in industrial injuries benefit can be expected, Lord Ashley, Labour's leading campaigner for the disabled, warned against any cuts in disability benefits.

He told the Sky News programme, Sunday with Adam Boulton: "I have received messages from Members of Parliament who say to me that they voted with the Government on the lone parents issue with an uneasy conscience; they've said that they support me very strongly on no cuts; and if cuts are brought in, then they will now vote against the Government.

"So that's a clear warning to the Government: they may have won on lone parents but they will not win, in my view, on cutting disability benefits."

Mr Blair said: "No one is talking about taking away benefits from those who need it." Lord Ashley said the key phrase, "for those who need it", left the way open to the taxation of benefits, and means testing. "So what I am seeking now is the specific, unambiguous statement of no cuts in disability benefits for individuals," he said. On present form, that will not be forthcoming.

William Hague yesterday added to the chances of a Government defeat when he said the Tories would also vote against cuts in disability benefits.

"If they were to, for instance, attack Disability Living Allowance, which is one of the proposals we understand is under consideration, the Conservative Party would certainly oppose that," the Tory leader told the BBC World this Weekend programme.