The Queen's Speech: Blair misses yet another opportunity to define New Labour

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR has struggled to define a coherent New Labour philosophy since coming to power and, in private, he often bemoans the lack of intellectual underpinning for his government's actions.

And yet, the Prime Minister wasted an opportunity to answer the perennial question - "what is New Labour actually for?" - when the Government displayed its legislative wares for the coming year in the Queen's Speech yesterday.

Mr Blair again defined his administration by what it was not. "For years in British politics people thought you had to choose," he told the Commons. "Either you backed policies which promoted business and sensible finance but were indifferent to social inequality or you engaged in old-style tax and spend to help the worst off at the expense of sound economics."

The Blairite approach is to achieve both goals by doing "what works". Yesterday's list of 28 Bills is longer than announced at the start of the last two Parliamentary years, and includes meaty measures on crime, transport, freedom of information and welfare reform. On closer inspection, however, it is rather like a large Chinese take-away that leaves you feeling rather hungry after a couple of hours.

The package looks suspiciously like a wish list drawn up by civil servants and ministers who know the electoral clock is ticking and want to push their pet schemes before it is too late.

Labour MPs noted the absence of significant health and education legislation, two of the Government's top priorities which, with the economy, will have much more bearing on the next general election than the 28 Bills announced yesterday.

The programme lacked a coherent theme. The best that Downing Street's soundbite writers could come up with was "enterprise and fairness" (perhaps significantly, in that order). This is hardly a crusade, and unlikely to set pulses racing outside the ranks of Financial Times readers.

The pragmatic approach makes it even harder for Mr Blair to find his Holy Grail of a New Labour philosophy. Yet another attempt to define his "Third Way" will be made in Florence this weekend, where he will join Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schroder and other centre-left leaders for a summit.

The other striking feature of yesterday's package was the illiberal streak that has become the trademark of Jack Straw, the Home Secretary. Mr Blair's aides are convinced that "tough" anti-crime measures such as mandatory drug-testing for some suspected criminals and depriving young offenders of their benefits, will play well in the "real world" where people will accept the ends justify the means.

But Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, pointed out last night that the Government should think twice about protecting civil liberties by taking away others in the process.

Ministers pointed out that the Queen's Speech did not paint the whole picture for the year ahead, and should be seen alongside last week's draft Budget by Gordon Brown, who has seized control of the entire social policy agenda as well as the economy.

But for all the talk of a huge programme of "modernisation", some Labour MPs feel uneasy that Mr Blair may have missed an opportunity to use his massive majority to go further and faster. They fear the Government is running out of steam and are worried at tea-room gossip that Downing Street is struggling to come up with ideas for Labour's election manifesto.

The more astute Labour MPs noted an opinion poll by ICM yesterday showing that Labour's lead over the Tories has fallen from 20 to 10 points since May, its lowest since the last election.

This trend may continue as voters become more impatient for improvements in health and education (on which ministers have become victims of their own rhetoric about a pounds 40bn cash injection).

Although the Tories still have a mountain to climb, William Hague outgunned Mr Blair in the Commons yesterday, giving Tory MPs some more grounds for hope. But the countdown to an election in spring 2001 has begun, and so the Tories now need to woo the centre-ground voters cultivated so skilfully by Mr Blair.