Blair to focus on domestic issues

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR yesterday responded to warnings that he is out of touch with Labour's core voters by promising to inject the same drive into tackling problems at home as he has put into resolving the Kosovo crisis.

"I know what I have got to focus on," Mr Blair said at the end of the Cologne summit. His remarks were seen as an admission that he had taken his eye off the European elections, resulting in Labour's worst defeat since the general election.

"I have never actually lost sight of the focus on domestic issues, but obviously with an issue like Kosovo - we were at war," he said.

Mr Blair is said by colleagues to be "exhausted" by the time he is spending abroad. He will make a statement to the Commons today on the G8 summit before leaving for Belfast later in the week to try to find a breakthrough in the peace process.

He was warned yesterday by John Monks, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, in the Independent on Sunday, that Labour had been treating its core voters like "embarrassing elderly relatives at a family get-together".

Labour's European election defeat has sounded alarm bells at Number Ten and Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is expected to be appointed as the new campaigns co-ordinator for the party in the July reshuffle. Peter Mandelson's return will be delayed for a year.

The Prime Minister has also ordered a fight-back with a list of popular measures for the next Queen's Speech in the run-up to the election.

The centrepiece is likely to be an integrated transport bill, allowing charges on motorists commuting into towns, and giving statutory backing for a rail authority to force rail companies to raise their performance.

Cabinet allies of John Prescott, the Transport Secretary, yesterday dismissed claims that Mr Blair was unhappy with Mr Prescott's performance. One minister said it was "the criticism of teenage advisers" around Number Ten who were upset at being ignored after warning against Labour being `anti- car'.

The Independent has learnt that the Queen's Speech will include a bill by Education Secretary David Blunkett for a new agency to help 16 to 18 year-olds into further education.

The Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, will have two major bills in the Queen's Speech. One will try to raise standards in the care of the elderly, and the other will implement the recommendations of the Utting report on institutionalised child abuse. It will allow responsibility for services in the most serious cases to be transferred to another authority or another management team.

The Deputy Prime Minister is also likely to get time for a wide-ranging countryside bill, with protection for sites of special scientific interest and the right to roam. But those demanding action to ban fox hunting are likely to be disappointed by the Home Office.

Michael Foster, the Labour MP backing the ban, will meet Jack Straw to hear the Government's response to backbench demands, but the Home Secretary and Number Ten are still engaged in a wrangle over the way forward. Mr Blair's advisers want to give councils the power to hold referendums on fox hunting; the MPs want a national ban on the sport, with referendums for areas which want to opt out.

Priority is likely to be given to plans for reviving interest in elections by allowing polls to take place at weekends and rolling voters' registers to stop voters being disenfranchised.