Tony Blair has on his hands a party that is growing used to rebellion

An impressively long list of his enemies now include half the Parliamentary party, the BBC and even the US Democratic party
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The Independent Online

In the peculiar history of governments with massive parliamentary majorities, it doesn't get obviously worse than this. Whatever the merits of the case, the government majority over foundation hospitals on Tuesday was the narrowest caused by a revolt since 1997. While it would still have won the vote - just - without its Scottish MPs, it raises the awesome possibility that the autumn vote on tuition fees will depend on a group of Scottish legislators whose own constituents have - as a matter of conscious political choice - been protected from paying just such fees.

As the University of Nottingham's Philip Cowley, the country's leading expert on revolts, has pointed out, Labour MPs have rebelled increasingly year by year since 1997, having rebelled by mid-term in this parliament as often as they did in the whole of the last. Where the whips wished to maximise the numbers of those who never rebel, they have created instead, in Cowley's words, "MPs who are increasingly, and dangerously, promiscuous".

This remarkable evidence of parliamentary instability has been overshadowed by the continued fallout from the non-discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and even more so by a row with the BBC that the Government is now threatening to prolong beyond its natural life.

No doubt Geoff Hoon, who by all accounts was cock-a-hoop to have uncovered a source who had spoken to the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan, would have liked him fully unmasked before the publication of this week's Foreign Affairs Select Committee report. There are signs, however, that the official was rather more resilient under the (no doubt metaphorical) white lights than Mr Hoon had hoped; it seems he was reluctant to say things that might have positively identified him as the source for the famous Gilligan story claiming Alastair Campbell had inserted the assertion that weapons of mass destruction could be mobilised within 45 minutes of Saddam giving the order (an assertion that was, in hindsight, highly fanciful, and may even, according to the eminent academic Lawrence Freedman, have been planted by Saddam Hussein's regime itself to frighten the coalition off an invasion).

The consequences were twofold: the first was that Hoon has been unable to assert so far with certainty that this man is the source; and the second was that, at the very moment that the confrontation between Number 10 and the BBC was beginning to cool off after honour was satisfied when the select committee vindicated Campbell on the central 45-minute charge, Hoon reignited it by asking the BBC to do the one thing that he must know is by any decent journalistic standards out of the question - which is to name a source. And that looks rather too much like the actions of a bullying and authoritarian government that doesn't know when to stop and increasingly tends, absurdly, to see the Corporation as the author of all its troubles. Reflection on the lessons of the select committee report is a matter first for the BBC, which the Government should in its own interests stop treating as if it was an opposition party in an election campaign.

But that in turn raises a larger question - which is just who are the Government's enemies. An impressively long list appears just now to include about half the Parliamentary Labour Party, the public service broadcaster, public transport (after yesterday's huge shift back to a roads-first policy by Alistair Darling) and even a US Democratic Party that is itself increasingly concerned about the lack of solidity in the intelligence on which attempts were made to legitimise the war in Iraq. And that may be too many for one government, even one as electorally strong as this, to take on at a time when it has enough real and traditional enemies to contend with.

Which means that the need for "renewal" - the magic word that will no doubt dominate today's strategic and political meeting of the Cabinet - has never been more urgent. Nor can it be met with only the increasingly tired New Labour mantras. This isn't to deny, say, that the division over foundation hospitals is rather narrower than either side will admit. Or that there is a strong case for, say, tuition fees that shift some of the burden for paying for higher education from those who can't afford it to those who can. Or that the nostrums of the recoalescing old Labour left are as obsolete as they always were.

But it is to realise the obligation for the Government to excite its natural support - deeply bruised by the demands made on it, not least but not only by a US neo-conservative-driven policy on Iraq - on a "modern social democratic" project, to use one of Blair's favourite phrases, and one in which the "social democratic" is at least as emphasised as the "modern".

A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country. With polling by Pew Research showing that Americans regard Blair as their favourite world statesman, the British Prime Minister this weekend will host a prestigious international "Progressive Governance" gathering of left-of-centre parties from round the world. It's a chance, among many other things, to try to assuage some of the still deep concerns in old Europe over Blair's steadfast position on Iraq.

But the several British ministers who will attend would also do well to read some of the European papers for the conference. Like the one by the academic Gosta Esping-Anderson that argues for a truly revolutionary proposal to provide full, publicly subsidised daycare for all children between the ages of zero and six, as a means of finally reducing the "social inheritance" that militates against equality by perpetuating class and income division, and that, he remarks in passing, is more prevalent in the US and the UK than anywhere else. The point is not so much the merits of the proposal itself, though the author makes a powerful case that the most important "phase of cognitive development" is pre-school; it is rather that this opens up a new frontier of the welfare state -at once hugely expensive and hugely desirable in the interests of social justice. Which once again opens up the taboo, but no longer avoidable, question of increasing progressive tax.

To confront the growing sense on much of the left that his time is running out, that it will never be "glad confident morning again" Blair needs to do a lot of things. Very short term, he should establish a Franks-style committee on Iraq as a necessary, though not sufficient, means of rebuilding public trust. He should play to his own strengths in identifying a leading role in Europe as a social democratic goal that can also rebalance foreign policy by no longer treating it as a US franchise. And in thrashing out a third-term agenda in the months ahead, he needs to re-engage with the support that put him where he is. This includes a party that, as he always says, he chose, while others were born to it. The Labour Party might not have won so big in 1997 without Blair. But the corollary is that Blair could not have won without the Labour Party.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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