Labour MPs tell Blair he is becoming out of touch

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Tony Blair was warned by Labour MPs that he was becoming dangerously "out of touch" with the public amid rising concern over the state of public services.

The Prime Minister faced a string of hostile questions about the NHS when he addressed the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). The criticism came from normally loyal MPs as well as his left-wing critics.

He also came under fire over the treatment by the United States of alleged al-Qa'ida fighters held in Cuba, and the Government's proposals to reform the House of Lords.

MPs said Mr Blair was "on the back foot" at one of his most difficult PLP sessions since becoming Prime Minister. Although no one criticised him for his recent trips abroad, many Labour MPs are worried that he appears out of touch at a time when the public is anxious about the state of the railways and the NHS.

Dennis Skinner, the left-wing MP for Bolsover, told him bluntly: "Get out and meet the people." Ian Gibson, Labour member for Norwich North, said after the meeting: "Being out of touch did for Mrs Thatcher. It must not happen to us."

The NHS was at the top of the list of concerns at the hour-long session, with MPs lining up to criticise the plans outlined on Tuesday to allow private firms to take over failing hospitals. No backbenchers spoke in support of the proposal.

Alan Simpson, MP for Nottingham South, described the scheme as "barmy", saying no one outside the Government's ranks believed that the private sector had a contribution to make to the NHS.

Normally loyal MPs who fired questions at the Prime Minister included Julia Drown (South Swindon), Helen Jackson (Sheffield Hillsborough), Peter Pike (Burnley), David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) and Geraint Davies (Croydon Central). Some MPs expressed concern that the Government was not doing enough to help traditional supporters in deprived areas.

The disquiet over health surfaced publicly in the Commons, where John Cryer, Labour MP for Hornchurch, asked Mr Blair during Prime Minister's questions: "Why should we hand over chunks of the health service to private-sector managers? Could you tell the House how these whizz-kids from the private sector will supposedly transform the health service?"

At the PLP meeting, Mr Blair acknowledged it was a "difficult time" for the Government but insisted Labour would be on course for a third election victory if it stuck to its plans to "modernise and reform" public services. "At the next election we will not be criticised because we have reformed too much but if we have reformed too little," he said.

A Labour spokesman played down the rough ride given to Mr Blair, saying the purpose of the session was for MPs to raise specific issues which concerned them. "That does not mean they were critical of the Government," he said.