Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Blairite mantras creep back on to the agenda
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The Independent Online

You can't keep Tony Blair out of it: his £500,000-a-year job with a Wall Street bank, a meeting with his old pal George Bush in his role as Middle East peace envoy and a rare interview, on Sky News.

For good measure, the untold story of the week at Westminster was a struggle between Gordon Brown and David Cameron to pick up the mantle of Mr Blair's domestic reforms and complete his mission to remodel public services. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, will enter the fray today, saying that "empowering" people shouldn't just be something the two main parties promise at election time.

The Tories, desperate to portray Mr Brown as anti-reform, sense the intellectual wind is in their sails. On Tuesday, they published a blueprint on welfare designed to outflank Labour. They plan the same trick on education, building on Mr Blair's city academies by allowing any group to run a state school. The common thread is to tailor services to individual needs in what Mr Cameron calls the "post-bureaucratic age", while presenting Mr Brown as a fossilised symbol of a "top-down" era who believes the state must run everything.

On the face of it, it's a clever strategy which may well strike a chord with the public. There's only one problem. Mr Brown knows a trap when he sees one and is not stupid enough to walk into it.

In his first six months as Prime Minister, his guiding star seemed to be to ensure he was "not Blair". He slowed the pace of public service reforms, notably by scaling back the NHS's use of private firms. He believed the Blair agenda focused too heavily on the means (such as changing structures) rather than the ends (for example, ensuring GP surgeries are open when people need them). This played into the Tories' hands.

But in a keynote speech on the NHS this week, Mr Brown changed tack, promising a new era of "patient power". The man who had avoided the Blairite mantra of "choice" in public services used the phrase 20 times. Blairites had a spring in their step afterwards. They hope Mr Brown will extend this approach across the waterfront, tweaking some of the Blair reforms but not dumping them overboard for the sake of it. "He squandered a lot of goodwill by defining himself against his predecessor for six months," one Labour MP told me. "There's still time to turn it round but he's starting from a bad position of his own making."

Hillary Clinton, the "experience" candidate, may have bounced back in New Hampshire against the youthful "change-maker" in Barack Obama. But Mr Brown is well aware that presenting himself as merely the man of experience will not be enough. "There is no contradiction between talking about the fundamentals of having a strong economy and talking about our vision for change," he told his monthly Downing Street press conference.

One Brown ally admitted: "Offering stability and strength is not going to be enough in 2010. He has got to find momentum, and not look as if his best days are behind him. And it can't be a one-man show."

Naturally, the Tories are unimpressed by Mr Brown's apparent conversion to the Blairite cause. They suspect his old instincts will show through.

But perhaps Mr Cameron was a little too impetuous when he associated himself with Mr Obama after his victory in Iowa. The temptation to translate the "old versus new" contest for the Democratic nomination to his battle with Mr Brown was too strong. "What's interesting about Obama is he's saying 'We are America, we can do anything'. We want that same sense in Britain," Mr Cameron said. He linked Mr Obama's "we can change" mantra to the Tories' plans to force hundreds of thousands of people on benefits back into work.

As it happens, the Brown Government is heading in a very similar direction on welfare – without the hardline rhetoric used by the Tories. Labour ministers prefer to talk about lifting people out of poverty rather than about claimants languishing on benefits. Their prime motivation is full employment rather than saving money. But they were uncertain whether to attack the Tories for being too draconian or accuse them of copying Labour's policies – which couldn't both be right. In the end, they settled for "me too-ism".

Indeed, the differences between the two parties on public services are not as great as they make out. The Tories, remember, would match Labour's spending – a pledge that some right-wingers regret but which the leadership regards as a vital insurance policy if they are to win the public's trust.

I suspect a draw on public services, which means the Brown-Cameron contest will turn on two things: what the voters think of the two leaders and the economy.

Yesterday the Tories launched a major offensive to dent Mr Brown's economic credentials, blaming him for not equipping Britain well enough for the current global turbulence. It's a high-risk strategy – especially if, as ministers hope, things don't turn out as badly as some experts predict. As on public services, the Tories may find Mr Brown a more elusive target than they anticipate.

Read Andrew Grice online at www.independent.co.uk/todayinpolitics

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