Labour Conference: What if ... the Blair Project really works?

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair could be the first prime minister since Attlee to say what he means, mean what he says, and deliver what he promises. Our Political Editor analyses an entirely different style in Downing Street.

When Ulster Unionists go into Number 10 and berate the Prime Minister, as they tend to, Mr Blair takes it on the chin and then gets down to business.

He does not grin and bear it because that is his way; it is not. But it is one of the lessons he has learnt from John Major's mistakes. It does not help to react with anger, when what you are trying to do is calm things down.

The application of intelligence to the process of government is very straightforward, but exceedingly rare. Mr Blair decides where he wants to go, looks at history and past mistakes, learns the lessons, and comes up with an answer. That answer is then reduced to a straightforward message, the means of delivery are decided, and the necessary action is taken to execute it.

The Northern Ireland talks process, Bank of England independence on interest rates, the devolution referendum votes are three prime examples of the process at work.

In the election, Mr Blair made a number of key promises for implementation during the course of the current, five-year Parliament. There was a time when John Major promised that he would not slap value-added tax on fuel; a devaluation of political promise that Mr Blair is determined not to repeat.

So what if class sizes are cut to 30 or under for 5-, 6-, and 7-year- olds? What if 250,000 under-25s can be switched from benefits to work? What if NHS waiting lists can be reduced by treating an extra 100,000 patients? Of course, that would make a difference to education, the economy, and the NHS.

They are changes that are designed as a first step on a rather more significant road - leading to a reform of the welfare state that leaves more of the middle classes looking after themselves and their pensions; leading to a reform of the constitution that really could create a "21st century of the radicals", with the Tories out of office as much as Labour has been during the 20th century; leading to a return of a sense of community and social values, with a restoration of the family to its former glory.

All of that, and more, is on the long-term Blair agenda, to create "the model 21st century nation, a beacon to the world". Nothing will be allowed to get in the way. When Mr Blair and his colleagues come across an obstacle, they either dismantle it, blow it up, or go round it until it can be removed.

If policy is unpopular or impractical, it is dropped; if the unions get in the way, they are sidelined, if the House of Lords threatens to get in the way, it will be "reformed"; if the press needs to be on side, seduce the proprietors; and if civil servants are not on side, they will be shifted or "retired".

To the consternation of some officials, ministers have broken with departmental loyalties, and they are actually working together, as a team, as they did in opposition, to achieve Labour's targets.

The Prime Minister's close cabinet colleagues, and his friends, say that the key to Mr Blair is his normality. But in politics, normality is abnormal.

The natural way in which Mr Blair responded to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, is cited as an example of his instinctive approach, "tapping in" to the feelings and thoughts of the party, and population at large. It is no coincidence that he has been to more Brighton "fringe" meetings this week than any other leader for 30 years.

There, on the fringe, everywhere he goes, he listens. And when he talks, he does not need high drama, or shock-horror tactics to put his case; the message on education, health, welfare, employment, and crime is kept simple and straight. Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime was Mr Blair's first example of the art-form; not so much a sound bite as a policy meal.

But Mr Blair has another secret, too. He bites off no more than he can chew. He limits his promises to the things he can achieve, and he believes that if he delivers on the fundamentals, like education and health, people will accept any pain that might have to be taken on things like tuition fees and self-help welfare.

Mr Blair said on Tuesday: "On 1 May 1997, it wasn't just the Tories who were defeated. Cynicism was defeated."

There, he was wrong. There are still many people who do not believe he will deliver; that he will be like all the rest of the politicians; a man of broken promises, broken dreams. Mr Blair is determined to be different. If his track record is anything to go by, he could well succeed, and, then, only then, vanquish the cynics.