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

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

Government hails latest GDP figures, but there is still room for scepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little