Don't expect any gratitude from the voters

"Trust me, I'm Tony" used to be the Prime Minister's implied answer to questions put to him by MPs, journalists and the public whenever he was in a hole. At this week's Downing Street press conference, however, Mr Blair more or less confessed that such a response now automatically tarnishes whatever message he is trying to get across to voters.

Perhaps that was why he sensibly insisted on using Michael Barber, the Head of the Delivery Unit, to present the claim that the Government is on target to achieve most of the domestic policy objectives, apart from transport, on which Labour was originally elected. Mr Barber's deadpan presentation, complete with complicated graph and slide show, gave the impression of authority and independence, devoid of the political gloss that would have reduced its impact had it been made by Mr Blair.

The Prime Minister probably, privately, now recognises that his year-long adventure on the international stage has been a failure in voters' eyes. There has been no Baghdad bounce, and he now has to accept that it is only his domestic record that will play a helpful part in determining his political future.

But there is still another painful political truth that Mr Blair has not yet confronted and which only John Prescott, now in charge, appears to recognise: the ingratitude of others. In many respects Mr Prescott's interview on the Today programme was more important and revealing than the Downing Street circus with the press. The Deputy Prime Minister railed, impatiently, against Labour MPs, asking them to start thinking long and hard about what the Government is doing, and imploring them to criticise less. "For God's sake talk up what the Government has done, which is a damn good record in any comparison," he wailed. Mr Prescott might equally have levelled this criticism at the wider electorate, and was probably thinking - although he restrained himself from saying - that they, too, are a pretty ungrateful lot.

But this Government has now reached the point where it cannot expect thanks from voters - even when it may be justified in expecting gratitude. On health, Mr Barber set out a convincing case that suggests that there are some noticeable improvements in waiting list statistics. With budget increases totalling 22 per cent during the current spending round, so there jolly well should be. But the increase in health service outcomes has been a meagre 1.6 per cent. So the thousands of extra nurses and doctors that have undeniably been recruited go largely unnoticed by the public.

Waiting lists, having risen, are now falling again, while the maximum waiting time has fallen from a peak of 18 months. But the politicians will get no thanks for this. When a patient is told that there may still be a wait of 12 months for an operation, few will say "Yippee - under the Tories, more than six years ago, I would have waited six months longer than that."

The crime statistics present a similar difficulty. Even taking the Government's carefully selected preferred measures on car crime and robbery, those voters whose cars are not stolen and who are not robbed believe that this is no thanks to the Government - mostly they will probably put it down to sheer luck. But for those who are the victims of crime, no amount of government statistics will convince them that "crime is going down".

At the Treasury, where ministers are championing the introduction of the new tax-credit system to help low-income families, the recent memory of thousands of potential beneficiaries left penniless during the past few weeks of administrative chaos will ensure few hurrahs for Gordon Brown at the ballot box. He was once also able to claim to have reduced the standard rate of tax to its lowest level ever in modern times - which enabled him to shake off the old image of Labour being a tax-raising party - but now he is doomed to be remembered at the ballot box, next time, for increasing national insurance. The spectre of an old Labour tax-and-spend Chancellor is returning to haunt Mr Brown.

The fundamental truth is that a Government's record, however impressive, often counts for little in the eyes of its own supporters. In 1997, representing as I did a substantial agricultural constituency, I assumed that farmers would automatically continue to support the Tories. Over 18 years they had had a virtual licence to print money. But for the final couple of years they had had modest cuts in their incomes. The BMWs could not be replaced and the second holiday had to go. "We often do better under Labour," was the cry from the election meeting with the NFU. Even my appeals to vote for me on the basis of saving fox-hunting fell on deaf ears.

Labour MPs have similarly recognised that ingratitude from Labour voters will be the main problem in securing the third term. In 1997, MPs were genuinely grateful to the Prime Minister for their victory - which he achieved for them. But as backbenchers now face a growing mailbag from disenchanted supporters, so they believe that it is only by thwarting Mr Blair on issues such as the Iraq war, foundation hospitals and university tuition fees that they are likely to keep their seats. That is why many of them think that if Mr Blair is to remain in Downing Street, he may, ultimately, need to be more grateful to them.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

Comments