Tony Blair has acknowledged that he will have to end his "top down'' presidential style if he is to win the support of the voters and the Labour Party for his public-sector reforms.
A "political'' session of the Cabinet lasting more than two hours yesterday decided there would be "no retreat" over the main elements of the reforms but agreed to try to win over Mr Blair's critics by becoming a "listening government".
The Prime Minister insisted that the tougher the challenge, the bolder the reforms needed to be. But he also adopted a conciliatory approach to his critics in what ministers saw as a tacit admission that there had not been enough consultation with the public and the party before plans for foundation hospitals and university top-up fees were announced.
One government source said yesterday: "Everyone recognises that we can't just hand down policies like these from on high. We have got to explain the changes in order to take people with us.''
Ministers had a wide-ranging discussion on public services and their strategy for the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth the week after next, which promises to be the most difficult since Mr Blair became leader nine years ago.
Mr Blair is expected to demand loyalty from Labour activists and the trade unions, warning that the Government and Labour Party can either go forward together or split apart and lose power like previous Labour administrations. In return, he will promise to consult more and listen more.
The Cabinet meeting yesterday did not agree on any possible concessions to head off rebellions, which are looming over foundation hospitals and university fees. But ministers believe that they will need to show some flexibility on the Higher Education Bill to avoid a humiliating defeat. "We will be more open to change when it is right to change," one minister said.
The Government also plans to reconnect with disenchanted Labour supporters, MPs and party members by giving a higher priority to measures to ensure "social justice".
Some ministers admitted that the Government had failed to explain its changes adequately. They were encouraged when John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, rehearsed his party conference pitch with a powerful justification of Labour's reforms to the health service. "It was what the public and the party have been crying out for; it was a joy to listen to,'' said one of his colleagues in the Cabinet.
Mr Blair expressed optimism that the Government would eventually be able to draw a line under the Hutton inquiry and turn the political spotlight back to bread-and-butter issues. After criticism that he has devoted too much time to foreign affairs, the Prime Minister has decided not to attend next week's meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, which will be addressed by President George Bush.
A Labour Party spokesman said: "Members of the Cabinet spoke up for the need for the reform programme to continue. This Labour Government is in the middle of a major programme of change to secure a fair society for all in our country so that good schools, decent health care and safe streets are available to every citizen, not just for those who can afford to pay for them.''
At the Labour conference, ministers will contrast their "fairness, justice and reform" agenda with what they will call the "cuts and privatisation" plans of the Conservative Party.Reuse content