The Week in Politics: Business of governing gets in the way of politics

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair had a successful week on his travels to Belfast, Madrid, Lisbon, Tripoli and Brussels.

Tony Blair had a successful week on his travels to Belfast, Madrid, Lisbon, Tripoli and Brussels.

His aides were nervous that something would go horribly wrong at his meeting with the unpredictable Muammar Gaddafi, unsure whether the normal rules of diplomatic choreography would apply. They were mightily relieved when all went well.

The Prime Minister will have little time to relax after his four-day tour. He may have a role on the world stage, but he is also a party politician at home. He will devote part of his weekend at Chequers to telephoning rebel Labour MPs ahead of another critical vote on university top-up fees next Wednesday.

This necessary change of gear highlights one of Mr Blair's biggest problems. His advisers are worried that he is so busy governing that he has not devoted enough time to the battles facing the Labour Party. They fear that the party is ill-prepared for the fast-approaching local authority and European Parliament elections on 10 June and the general election expected 11 months later. "If we could choose 250 things for him to do, then going to Libya would not be one of them," one Blair aide told me yesterday.

The June elections come at an awkward time, just too early to start the general election campaign, but if Labour gets the bloody nose it fears, too late to be dismissed as a mid-term blip.

Mr Blair is well aware that the "governing" problem afflicted John Major, whose ministers seemed to forget that they were party politicians and suffered the consequences in 1997.

Now the boot is on the other foot. The Tories are unencumbered by the events - often beyond its control - that set the Government's agenda, and can slip easily into pre-election mode. However hard Mr Blair tries to return to domestic issues, he gets sucked back to foreign affairs.

It is true that Gordon Brown's Budget has energised the Labour Party by defining the dividing lines between it and the Tories in the tax and spend debate. But that doesn't make an election strategy. Crucial questions over that - and the contents of the Labour manifesto - must be resolved.

It is wrong to see the looming battle as one between the Blairities and the Brownites, although it may become one.

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have different priorities. Mr Blair is keen on modernisation, reform and keeping Middle England sweet, while Mr Brown majors on economic stability, investment in public services and social justice. Now that the two men are working closely together again after a bad patch last autumn, their different mindsets complement each other quite well when they thrash out government policies.

But fighting an election is a very different matter. Mr Blair can choose between three routes - the "permanent revolution" advocated by ultra-Blairites, soft-pedalling on the reforms, or pressing on but mobilising the party more fully behind them, which is favoured by Mr Blair.

If the manifesto does not outline further reforms, the Blairites fear the party will be forced to fight the general election on its record on public service "delivery", which is bound to be seen as patchy. So Labour must map out a future direction, even though this gets harder the longer a party remains in power.

The danger is that the Tories, having finally jettisoned their past baggage, will offer a more forward-looking agenda. As Mr Blair says privately: "Once New Labour cedes the reform agenda to the Tories, it is finished."

But renewing a party while it is in office is hard work. So hard, in fact, that some Labour thinkers are convinced the party will hang on to power next year but is already doomed to lose the election after next.

Neal Lawson, a former Brown aide who chairs Compass, an organisation trying to push the Government in a more "democratic left" direction, says: "As for the manifesto, the key challenge is for New Labour to break out of the defensive mindset which dominated thinking in 1997 and 2001. We will lose a fourth election in 2009 if we offer a politics that is timid rather than transformative - so Labour may as well be more ambitious now."

However, Mr Lawson warns that it would be a disaster if "choice" in public services dominates the manifesto, as some Blairites want. "There is no evidence the public want it or believe it is even possible. What they do want is the reassurance that their local school or hospital is good enough," he says.

Despite such warnings, Mr Blair seems determined to go down the consumerist route. But the "choice" agenda is very hazy at the moment and needs to be developed quickly. Labour's problem is that, after eight years in power, it will have to do more than re-run the last election in order to win convincingly at the next one.