Blair clocks up 40,000 miles on his travels

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair denied yesterday that his prominent role in shoring up the international coalition on terrorism meant he was neglecting domestic issues such as health and education.

The Prime Minister moved to quell criticism that his globe-trotting had resulted in him turning his back on the bread-and-butter issues that will almost certainly decide the next general election.

When Labour MPs tackled him over his decision to devote so much time to the international crisis, Mr Blair reassured them at their weekly meeting at Westminster that he had not taken his eye of the ball on issues such as crime, health and education.

By rushing back from last night's dinner with the US President, George Bush, in Washington to meet the leaders of Jordan and Pakistan in Downing Street today, the Prime Minister had clocked up more than 40,000 miles, 31 separate flights and held some 55 meetings with fellow leaders since 11 September.

As well as making two whistle-stop visits to America, he has toured the Middle East twice and visited Russia, India and Pakistan. The exhausting programme does not include his daily burst of telephone diplomacy.

Downing Street says it is impossible to quantify the man hours that the Number 10 machine has expended on the battle against terrorism. But there is no disguising that many of Mr Blair's key staff – including Alastair Campbell, his director of communications and strategy, Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, and Anji Hunter, the head of external relations – have been diverted from domestic to international issues.

The energy of other Downing Street staff has also been spent on the time-consuming task of arranging the foreign trips, often at short notice.

Although the Foreign Office is involved, there is a growing perception in Whitehall that Mr Blair is acting as his own Foreign Secretary, and possibly Defence Secretary to boot. Naturally, the suggestion is rejected by Downing Street, which is anxious not to offend Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon. But no one is in any doubt who is in charge.

Immediately after the atrocities in New York and Washington, Mr Blair acknowledged the high risk of throwing himself into the role of world statesman and go-between. He believes he did neglect domestic issues during the Kosovo crisis, and was determined not to make the same mistake again.

Even when his diary has been filling up with matters relating to the war on terrorism, he has insisted on going ahead with meetings about public services. Since 11 September, he has visited the Health and Education departments to talk to staff and addressed ministers on the issue. On Tuesday, he held a progress-chasing session with David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, and Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary.

But such activity has failed to halt a rumbling of concern in the media that Mr Blair is not devoting enough time to the home front.

To some extent, the Prime Minister is being hoist by his own petard: before 11 September, he was quite happy to be seen as the person who was driving through the changes on public services, and had a reputation for micro-managing things that could have been left to government departments.

Mr Blair's sensitivity to the charge of neglecting domestic issues was shown yesterday when his official spokesman told journalists he had spent only nine of the past 57 days abroad. "He is focused very firmly on the domestic agenda," the spokesman said.

Rejecting the labels of "foreign" and "domestic" affairs, his spokesman said: "It is a false distinction because the war on terrorism is an essential part of the domestic agenda.

"This country lost more of its citizens in New York than in any other single terrorist attack. The war on terrorism is just as much a part of the Government's domestic agenda as anything else, because the Government has a duty to protect its citizens from attack, its economy from disruption and its society from the threat of drugs."

Although most Labour MPs at yesterday's meeting appeared to back Mr Blair's decision to immerse himself in the fight against terrorism, they will be anxious to ensure that the present level of commitment does not become permanent.

Blair aides are unrepentant. For the time being, at least, the Blair travelling circus is likely to be on the road about once every two weeks. They are fully aware that this frenetic activity will probably count for nothing at the next general election, but maintain that is not the point.

"He spent a lot of time on Ireland, often to little avail. But it came right in the end," said one aide. "It's not a question of doing what is popular, but doing what is right."

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