John Rentoul: Don't get over-excited - it's not all over for Blair

We British don't want to be told we have never had it so good, even if it is true
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The smell of death, said Jeremy Paxman. He wasn't really guilty of anti-Government bias, this time. He just likes the phrase. It is the kind of sound bite in which the media trades, with its collective attention span of about 15 minutes. Indeed, less than 15 minutes later, on the same Newsnight programme, it was Paxman himself who defended Tony Blair against Jenny Tonge, the Liberal Democrat peer who understands suicide bombers. She compared the Government's travails to the last days of the Conservatives, and he couldn't help himself: "Oh, it doesn't feel anything like as bad as that, does it?"

No, it doesn't. The scandal of the un-deported foreign prisoners is a truly head-in-hands, no-excuses embarrassment.

Of course, we can explain how it happened. As Steve Richards wrote yesterday, the reason the Home Secretary did not get a grip when he found out about the problem last year was because the press hadn't noticed. The one engine that drives British politics more than any other was not switched on, and ministerial attention was devoted to other things. The puzzle, therefore, is not why Charles Clarke allowed 288 more foreigners to avoid deportation, but why the Daily Mail missed a copper-bottomed, 24-carat scare story last summer.

We can also make sensible observations in order to maintain a sense of proportion. Foreigners who have served their sentence are no more a threat to the public than are British nationals. (Although a legal philosopher might point out that criminals tend to reoffend and that, while a society may be obliged to take that risk with its own citizens, it owes no such obligation to foreigners.)

Yet for Tony Blair the story has a particular Made in Hades quality. What could be worse in the run-up to elections, even for local councils, than a story that combines foreigners and crime? Nine years of eye-catching initiatives designed to persuade people that the Government is "on their side" in dealing with their legitimate concerns about immigration and violent crime, and now this.

The situation is not remotely comparable, however, to the end of the Major government, as Paxman so rightly expostulated. The Conservatives had collapsed in the opinion polls after the ERM humiliation, and two years later they faced a Labour Party led by Blair that rated consistently above 50 per cent in voting intention surveys. John Major faced near-certain electoral disaster from the start of that parliament, and many of his ministers behaved accordingly.

We do not yet know what the impact will be on the opinion polls of Clarke's admission that he had lost control of foreign criminals but has now regained it. A reasonable if tentative guess is that it will not be positive for Labour. But it is also that it will not be of the order of that of the ERM débâcle.

Then the frame of historical reference shifts to the end of Thatcher. A bunkered, inflexible leader, indifferent to her unpopularity, finally forced, eyes glistening, from Downing Street. But again the situation is not remotely comparable. She had declared her intention to go "on and on" and was plainly leading her party to defeat at the next election. Tory MPs realised that she - and her poll tax - would have to go if they were to have a chance.

Blair won't be leading the Labour Party into the next election - although there is nothing to stop him serving out his "full" third term. And, in any case, his policies are not fundamentally unpopular. The Royal College of Nursing did its best to advance the Conservative cause by giving the opposite impression, when its members jeered Patricia Hewitt. But that is not as new as it seems.

It was in 2000 that Blair himself was slow-handclapped by another small-c conservative gathering of white, middle-aged women, at the Women's Institute. Curiously, it was his attempt to recite the Government's achievements on the health service that set them off, too. It is a cultural peculiarity. We British do not want to be told that we have never had it so good, even, or perhaps especially, if it is demonstrably true. Nurses boo anyone who tells them that their starting pay has gone up by between 26 and 42 per cent.

We want to believe the worst, and buy newspapers that tell us it is so. But we cannot have it all ways. Beverly Malone, the nurses' leader, cannot defend a tax-funded NHS as fair and efficient while her members undermine it. And columnists cannot berate this government for assaulting our civil liberties when the one thing that should be absolutely obvious from this week's fiasco is that the Home Office is utterly institutionally incapable of running a police state.

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

The writer is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'

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