End of term warnings to the troops

Blair: `We need unity, discipline and purpose'
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Indy Politics
Tony Blair cracked the whip over Labour MPs yesterday, demanding iron discipline in an end-of-term speech that surprised some backbench critics.

With a Commons majority of 180 under his belt from the May election, and a parliamentary party remarkable for its devotion to the Blair project, some MPs said the speech would have been more appropriate for a strife- ridden party on a knife-edge majority.

But the Prime Minister appears determined to break with all patterns of predictability and precedent, as demonstrated by the creation of his consultative Cabinet committee with the Liberal Democrats.

Yesterday Mr Blair told a closed-door meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, in the Commons: "If we are to be re-elected at the next election, we need unity, discipline, a sense of purpose and a continuing commitment to effective campaigning.

"That means that the `Party into Power' proposals to be discussed at this year's conference should be passed in order to help guarantee that the splits between party and government that have plagued Labour governments in the past don't occur in the future.

"Such divisions can only damage the party and the Government. We must operate as one, and must campaign with one another to sustain and build our party organisation to make it even more effective and successful than it has been up to now. This means ensuring that we conduct our internal differences of opinion in a way that does credit rather than harm to the party and in no way jeopardises our electoral prospects."

The message was that the leadership recognised debate and dissent was the lifeblood of the political process, but that it had to be aired with constructive discretion - without blighting Labour's chances of winning the next election.

"We have never had a Labour government elected for a full two terms," Mr Blair said, "and our task must be to govern for the long term so that when the next election comes, the people of this country trust us and want to re-elect us with a continuing mandate.

"We must therefore continue to be a government which is modern, fair and strong and these must be the defining characteristics of this Government."

Nevertheless, there has been increasing left-wing resentment of the "Party into Power" masterplan, which is seen as a device for neutering the power of party conference.

Senior Labour sources said yesterday there had been little criticism of the Blair-Ashdown deal to consult formally onissues of mutual agreement.

But Tony Benn later delivered a personal - and most public - protest to his leader during Prime Minister's Questions, when he rebuked Mr Blair for not making some kind of Commons announcement on the novelty of the consultative Cabinet committee.

And Paddy Ashdown was greeted by strong Tory barracking when he was called during Question Time. He rounded on the Conservative benches for their "hypocrisy".

The Liberal Democrat leader said that, in government, the Conservatives had welcomed cross-party support when they could get it. "Now, in opposition, they criticise it whenever anybody else does it."