After two terms, Labour demonstrates that it still has the appetite for power

Mr Blair wants to reform the public services and won't go willingly until those changes are implemented
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Never underestimate Labour's appetite for power. The launch of its manifesto was awesome in its artfully choreographed seriousness. Labour's strategists sought to convey a single overriding message. After eight years in power, here was a team of ministers that still had a sense of purpose and a detailed programme to achieve their objectives.

Never underestimate Labour's appetite for power. The launch of its manifesto was awesome in its artfully choreographed seriousness. Labour's strategists sought to convey a single overriding message. After eight years in power, here was a team of ministers that still had a sense of purpose and a detailed programme to achieve their objectives.

The Cabinet was on a stage. As with all such launches, this one was partly an act, a ritualistic performance; but given the unavoidable contrivances, the symbolism of the event was impressive. As a bonus, a visitor from Mars would have assumed that here was a government untroubled in recent years by near fatal tensions at the very top.

The contrast with the Conservatives' launch was marked and deliberate. On Monday, Michael Howard was alone on a podium presenting a thin programme of policies, some of which are failing to withstand detailed scrutiny. In particular, the Conservatives have changed their tax plans since the start of the election campaign.

Tory leaders have suggested that they would have spare cash for tax cuts in their first Budget because some of their savings would also take immediate effect. Now we are told that the tax cuts would be applied only in the second year of a Conservative government. This is a more credible policy, but the clarification has taken a long time to come.

Political opponents and the media would have destroyed Labour if it had been so casual about policies relating to tax. I am reminded of an observation made in the 1970s by Harold Wilson's confidante, Marcia Williams: "The Conservative supporting newspapers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party. The left-of-centre newspapers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party."

Not that Mr Howard would agree. He is performing with an agile authority in what are still overwhelmingly challenging circumstances. A year ago, I wrote that he would go down in history as the leader who saved the Conservative Party. I believe this even more now, and sense that the Conservatives are going to gain quite a few seats next month. They would have been a laughing stock if Mr Howard's predecessor had led the campaign.

But they are not ready for power, and compared with Labour they are not hungry for power. If their leading lights wanted to be in government, the Conservatives' campaign would be more than a one-man show. As it is, Mr Howard performs virtually alone.

The Labour campaign has become a two-man show. The rapprochement of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown has been the most extraordinary development. I wrote about this last week, but I should add that there are important limits to the newly harmonious relationship.

At the last possible moment, on the eve of the election, the two of them talked in detail about how they would work together during the campaign with a ruthless focus on economic issues. Mr Blair agreed to stress the importance of "public ethos" in hospitals and schools. Mr Brown accepted that he would not hint at his doubts about the Blairite reforms of public services.

This does not mean either of them has changed their views in this highly-charged area. In that specific sense, the rapprochement between Mr Blair and Mr Brown lasts until 5 May.

There is a widespread theory, promoted most recently by Robin Cook, that on 6 May power will shift to Mr Brown as ministers and MPs prepare for the post-Blair era. Mr Brown and Mr Cook have also had a rapprochement after years of mutual enmity. Wherever I go, people are making up with Mr Brown, or Mr Brown is making up with them.

Mr Cook is a perceptive political observer, but in this case I suspect he is wrong, or perhaps is a victim of wishful thinking. If Mr Blair wins, he will retain the authority and the powers of prime ministerial patronage as ambitious ministers will know. More precisely, Mr Blair wants to reform the public services and will not go willingly until those changes have been implemented.

Mr Blair's proposed reforms are complicated and risky. In some cases, the performance of complacently lacklustre NHS hospitals are likely to improve when they face more formidable competition from the private sector. But in the short and medium term, the taxpayer will finance an expansion of the private sector under generous terms, possibly at a more expensive rate than the NHS.

Presumably, taxpayers will also finance a surplus of hospital places in order for patients' choice to be meaningful, which means that Tory-supporting papers will have a ball pointing to half-empty hospitals financed by the state. But beyond his publicly stated wariness about markets in health care, it is not clear yet that Mr Brown has a detailed alternative to these proposals.

The reform of public services will be a decisive theme in a third term, but a manifesto is also about tone and context. What is most impressive about Labour's document is the introduction to each section. The familiar proposals are prefaced by details of what the Government had attempted to achieve in its first two terms and how it would move forward. Too often, the Government has appeared to lack a clear sense of direction. The manifesto gives it a beginning and a middle. We will have to await the end.

Some serious-minded figures in the Government tell me they regard the manifesto as Britain's social democratic settlement, as important as the programme Labour implemented after the 1945 election. Others suggest that economic stability and social justice, the new Labour synthesis, has proved more substantial and enduring than they dared to hope. But if Labour wins the election, it faces challenges that cannot be controlled as easily as a manifesto launch. Blair and Brown are hemmed in once more on the issue of tax. Yet again, they are under pressure from the media to rule out all tax increases, an absurd request.

Sometimes in British politics, a different question needs to be posed: are they planning to spend enough? I do not see how they maintain spending on health at the EU average without putting up taxes or introducing wide-ranging forms of co-payments. There will probably be a referendum on the EU constitution, more winnable than it looks but stressfully daunting. More widely, Blair and Brown will not always be as close as they appear to be in the heat of a pre-election battle.

Even so, yesterday's launch of Labour's manifesto reminded me of the equivalent event for the Conservatives in 1987 when Margaret Thatcher's government seemed still to have an undying appetite for power after two terms. The key question in this odd post-Iraq election is whether enough Labour inclined voters are paying attention or decided long ago to withdraw their support.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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