Backbench critics are misguided, says Blair

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Tony Blair rejected criticism from his Labour backbenchers and vowed to press ahead with his programme of public service reforms.

The Prime Minister told the Cabinet at its weekly meeting that the public supported the changes and was beginning to see the impact of the extra billions being pumped into education and health.

Although Mr Blair was given a rough ride over the NHS at a meeting of Labour MPs on Wednesday, he has been encouraged by Labour's private polling. It suggests people believe the state of the NHS is starting to improve and that Labour can still reap a political benefit if it "turns round" education, health and transport by the next general election. Advisers have told Mr Blair the current spate of bad publicity could yet work to Labour's advantage.

Interviewed on BBC Radio Five Live last night, Mr Blair hinted that he has set a date in his own mind for stepping down as Prime Minister. His remarks will fuel speculation that he might quit soon after the next general election even if he wins a third term. Asked if he had thought about what he would do next after being Prime Minister, he replied: "You are probably right." But he said he would be "foolish" to say any more at the moment.

In the interview, he defended his recent spate of foreign trips and denied he had become out of touch with the domestic political agenda.

He said the Government had "a plan" to turn round education, health and transport. On the railways, he said the good news was that a new structure for the industry was in place, but the bad news was that it would "take time."

Mr Blair insisted the NHS was "on the mend" and rejected his MPs' criticisms about "back-door privatisation. We are not ending up with the private sector running the NHS," he said, adding that a "partnership" between the two sectors would work in the interests of patients.

Mr Blair again hinted that taxes might have to rise to maintain the extra spending in public services. "For the next Budget and spending round it is important to get that investment in," he said.

In strongly worded comments to the Cabinet earlier, Mr Blair claimed the Government was more in tune with the public's views than were his Labour critics. His spokesman said: "He reiterated that he thought people in general understood that what we were dealing with was the legacy of decades of underinvestment, but they also know investment and reform are the way to address these problems.

"He also believes people recognise change is already beginning to happen and that therefore we are building on work that has already been done in the public services."

Asked why Mr Blair was struggling to win his own MPs' support for his vision, the spokesman said: "There will be those who want to oppose any change in public services. Equally there will be those who want to write off public services ... He doesn't believe either of these options are valid.

"There's a dynamic there that will result in better services." He said reforms already in place in health, education and transport were beginning to bear fruit. "He believes people recognise that is the right strategy and the Government is confident of keeping that strategy on track," the spokesman said.

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