Blair's Progress: Sing the cosy old tunes - then get down to business

Share
Related Topics
Earlier this week in a tennis club close to Brighton, three innocently changing sportsmen were astounded to come face to face with a near naked Tony Blair freshly sweating from the courts. With a nonchalant wave of his hand the - currently - most popular leader in the developed world said a diffident "Hi, guys " and stepped into the shower. Utterly stunned, the unplanned reception committee let towels and bars of soap slip to the floor as they stared like zombies at the prime ministerial apparition. At least one recovered sufficiently to utter a strangled "All right, mate". What they said when they got home, and if anyone believed them, is not recorded.

For all the trappings of power, Tony Blair isn't at all behaving like the presidential figure his Tory critics claim he wants to be. He is in high good humour, confident and focused as ever. But folie de grandeur is not among his faults. Those who have talked to him privately say that, far from letting his astonishing poll ratings go to his head, he regards them as unreal, almost depressing. He continues to warn his colleagues, first, that the conference message of "hard choices" ahead means the Government is bound to grow much less popular in the coming months. Second, he cautions that the Government's popularity only counts when it reflects a solid record of achievement. And he believes the party understands that better at the end of the week than at the beginning.

It isn't that difficult to amass evidence to the contrary. The union leaders who queued up after Gordon Brown's speech to press for big pay settlements showed every sign of failing to absorb the Chancellor's blunt message that the Government would ruthlessly put control of inflation and spending above the demands for pay increases; help for those without jobs in preference to rises for those who have them.

The national executive elections have been greeted by the left as evidence of its increased popularity within the party. The standing ovation for Barbara Castle's attack on the Government's pensions policy on Wednesday symbolises the extent to which the old-time religion of Labour still strikes a chord with the faithful. All big three of the Cabinet, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Robin Cook, used language on occasions that shamelessly played to those old Labour susceptibilities.

Superficially then, you can make a strong argument that the party hasn't really changed. But the counter-case is stronger. First, in whatever the language they clothed it, the messages from Prescott and Brown were uncompromisingly modernising. Prescott's big speech of the week, a barnstorming demolition of the case for renationalising RailTrack, showed the Deputy Prime Minister at his formidable best in championing Blair's approach to government. The Mo Mowlams, the Harriet Harmans, the David Blunketts, the Jack Cunninghams, the Jack Straws made speeches which were throughly New Labour in form as well as content.

There will be a reshuffle, perhaps as late as next summer, perhaps earlier. When it does happen, some ministers will leave the Cabinet and perhaps the Government. But Blair is impressed by his most talented and decisive ministers. And the union leaders, who anyway show rather more understanding of the realities of government policy in private chats with ministers than, tiresomely, they do in public, are making a big mistake if they think for a second that Brown and his rising chief secretary, Alistair Darling, will regard this week's conference as other than a mandate for the toughest of approaches to public sector pay. Whatever the turbulence it causes.

There is also rather less to the NEC results than meets the eye. Skinner is a genuinely popular figure in the party, a lovable fragment of its heritage. Blair's own constituency of Sedgefield voted for Skinner. But if it thought that Skinner was coming within a mile of influencing the direction of the government Sedgefield would be utterly horrified. It also remains clear that the anti-Mandelson vote was not anti-modernisation. Blair told Mandelson some time before the ballot results that he thought it would be good for him if he lost. He certainly regarded the endless publicity his trusted lieutenant attracted over August as a real problem, believing that it would have been better for Mandelson to fight, if he was going to fight at all, simply on his record in an outstanding election campaign. He meant everything he said on Wednesday about Mandelson's talents. But he also made it clear to him that humility, dealing with people, and not becoming the story, matter too. If Mandelson learns this lesson he should have the career ahead of him implied by Blair on Wednesday.

Blair is confident, not without reason, that the party, especially but not exclusively its swelled ranks of younger members, continued to warm to him this week. This is not just because of the size of the victory but because he feels they like hearing a leader who expresses enduring Labour goals in language which speaks to those without tribal roots in Labour. There is every sign that the party still likes listening to the old music hall tunes. But there's also every sign that's what members increasingly, however affectionately, regard them as: music hall tunes.

On Tuesday, Blair struck a series of bargains not only with his party but with the wider electorate: to take two prime examples: health and education will get, in the long run, the funds they need. But the price will be real reform, of delivery standards, of administration, of structure. Bad teachers will be sacked, education authorities bypassed, precious demarcations between health service professionals painfully eradicated. There will be anguish inside Labour as well as outside it. Rivalries and tension within the Cabinet, already being exacerabated by competition for scarce resources as well as conflicts of personality, will undoubtedly increase. The going will be rough. There is turbulence ahead. Seatbelts should be fastened now. But Tony Blair at least is confident the flightpath is now clear.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam