Tony Blair promised that he would give priority to domestic issues yesterday as he returned from his six-day visit to south Asia to growing criticism that he was neglecting the problems facing Britain.
After his attempt to cool the dangerous dispute between India and Pakistan and a flying visit to Afghanistan, the Prime Minister arrived back at Downing Street to accumulating troubles on the domestic front. He spent yesterday afternoon in meetings about "public service delivery", his official spokesman said.
The crisis in transport will be near the top of Mr Blair's agenda. He will be briefed on the series of rail strikes that have stretched to breaking point the patience of already hard-pressed commuters. Downing Street aides are increasingly worried that Labour will face a backlash at the general election. The Prime Minister will also be told about criticism of Stephen Byers, the Transport Secretary, for taking a holiday while strikes paralysed parts of the rail network.
Mr Blair will demand an update on progress made in health and education, the other two public services that the Government is determined to improve before the election.
Officials will also report rising public concern over violent crime after a spate of attacks that received widespread publicity over the Christmas and New Year period.
Although Mr Blair claims he no longer frets about "tomorrow's headlines", he is bound to be informed about a series of articles suggesting there are splits among ministers on the single currency. As well as transport, the euro might be raised in the Commons today at Prime Minister's Question Time.
When he meets representatives of Labour's backbench MPs for his weekly listening exercise, Mr Blair is expected to reassure them he will concentrate on domestic issues.
His spokesman, admitting that there were "no quick fixes" for problems such as the railways, added: "We will not be judged by what we say but by what we do."
As MPs returned to Westminster yesterday after their Christmas break, Labour members joined the Tories in criticising Mr Blair's latest round of globe-trotting.
Donald Anderson, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said Mr Blair's peace mission in India and Pakistan had been a success but urged him to switch his attention to domestic policy.
"There clearly have been murmurings about the PM spending too much time on foreign affairs," Mr Anderson said. "I suspect that now his advisers have got the message that clearly the greater part of the war, the immediate war against terrorism, is over and that the PM should now be advised to devote more of his immense energies to domestic problems."
Although prime ministers who win a second term have often become fascinated by foreign affairs, Blair aides deny he is showing the same tendency. "The events post-September 11 have been a pretty exceptional set of circumstances," Mr Blair's spokesman said, adding that critics were making a "false distinction" between home and foreign affairs. Mr Blair had spent only 16 nights outside Britain since 11 September, he said.
The Prime Minister will stay in Britain for the rest of this month and may delay a long-planned visit to Africa in an attempt to avoid further criticism. But his 2002 diary is already filling up with foreign commitments: a Commonwealth meeting in Australia; two European summits in Spain; an "Earth Summit" in Johannesburg and a meeting of G8 leaders in Canada. That is before any other trips made necessary by the war on terrorism.Reuse content