"Do you think Gordon Brown has done a good job as Prime Minister?" Tony Blair was asked by a girl on a visit to a South Shields school on Wednesday. "Erm, yes. That's all I'm saying otherwise I might get into trouble," was the revealing reply.
Mr Brown is getting flak from all sides. It goes with the job. Blairites think he has dumped their agenda after he scaled back the NHS's planned use of the private sector and launched a review of Mr Blair's flagship city academy schools. Yet some natural Brown allies are not satisfied either; they want him to be bolder rather than drop repeated hints that he is "not Blair", as he did in his foreign policy speech at the Lord Mayor's Banquet on Monday. They want more change and less continuity. It is a difficult balance to strike.
Meanwhile, middle-of-the-road Labour MPs worry that Mr Brown has not regained momentum since the Great Non-Election. They don't fret much about policy detail or the change/continuity ratio but want a clearer sense of direction. "There is a vacuum," one told me.
To make matters worse, David Cameron is snapping at Mr Brown's heels and starting to leave marks. He is getting the better of the Prime Minister in the Commons. Ministers admit the Tory leader is much more confident after winning a reprieve from an election for which he wasn't ready. "We might have been wrong to give him a second chance," one said.
The Blairites warn that the apparent retreat from their public service agenda will allow Mr Cameron to colonise the centre ground and allow him to return to his favourite line of attack. The Tories' plan A was to paint the incoming Prime Minister as anti-reform. They would claim they would complete Mr Blair's unfinished business while playing on the voters' sense that the money poured into services has not yielded a substantial dividend.
Mr Brown saw the attack coming, hit the centre ground running with plenty of reform ideas and wrong-footed the Tories, who struggled to lay a glove on him. His "big tent" left little room for the Tories on the middle ground. So allowing them to land some heavy punches now looks like bad politics.
As usual, things are more complicated than they seem. It is true that Mr Brown has always been less keen than his predecessor about the role of market forces in health. Seven contracts for the private sector to run surgical treatment centres for the NHS have now been scrapped. The betting is that they would have gone ahead under Mr Blair. But for what reason? Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, insists the decision to cancel them is "pragmatic, not ideological". The NHS now has more capacity, and so needs the private sector less than it originally thought, says the Brown camp, so the contracts did not pass the value-for-money test.
The Downing Street review of city academies, ordered by Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, also ruffled Blairite feathers. He insists it is not about rowing back from the programme but making sure it is achieving a genuine improvement in schooling in the toughest inner-city areas. Far from him being anti-reform, Mr Balls argues, it is the Tories who oppose radical change such as raising the education leaving age to 18 and new diplomas alongside A-levels.
Ironically, Brownites could sum up this week's moves on health and education as an example of doing "what works" – Mr Blair's very own mantra. And it would be a bit odd for the Government, whoever leads it, to set in stone everything that has happened since 1997. It would also be a recipe for election defeat, allowing the Tories to pick up the reform baton. So there will be different reforms under Mr Brown and it may be necessary to fine-tune the Blair changes. A fairer criticism than the "anti-reform" charge is a lack of definition, direction and destination. "Change from something is not enough, it has to be change to something," said one former cabinet minister. "That's what's missing. We've no idea where Gordon is taking us."
Mr Brown made a rod for his own back by saying he was scrapping his election plans in order to map out his "vision for change". What he needs is not a slogan but to weave together the threads of his ministers' policies into a coherent whole. He seems keen to implement reform by stealth just as he pursed the redistribution of wealth by stealth as Chancellor. Perhaps he doesn't want to frighten the horses. Sitting in Downing Street, he sees the heavy tanks of our right-wing newspapers parked on his lawn, and few cheerleaders for the "progressive consensus" he wants to create.
So the changes emerge piecemeal and without fanfare as defensive ministers deny any change of direction. Mr Brown slogs on with the hard pounding of government. But experience and competence will not be enough to win next time. And competence will always be threatened by unforeseen events such as Northern Rock or the latest Home Office crisis.
Perhaps some shouting from the rooftops is required. As one Labour MP put it: "We need a route map and our marching orders. The only one who can provide that is Gordon himself."Reuse content