Steve Richards: Are the voters still listening to Blair? We will learn the answer in today's elections

The Government has always been capable of monumental cock-ups while staying on course
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The Independent Online

Once more, the sledgehammer cracks the nut. The reaction to the small crisis arising from the release of foreign prisoners is as excessive as the original furore.

The sequence is familiar. There is an apparent crisis. Political opponents and parts of the media are up in arms. Downing Street is in a state of despairing panic. Home Office ministers are told to take sweeping action and, as important, be seen to be taking action. Draconian proposals are announced. Political opponents are trapped into supporting the proposals having made such a fuss in the first place. The hysteria produces a consensus over a mad set of policies in which if a foreigner steals some chewing gum he will be deported to Zimbabwe.

The sequence contains a dismal message about our political culture. The Government alone cannot be blamed. All three parties and the media are culpable. As I argued on Tuesday the biggest risk to public safety arises from the fact that most former British prisoners re-offend. New legislation aimed at kicking out foreign prisoners will make little difference. Indeed it will make no difference at all.

The Shadow Home Affairs' spokesman David Davis pointed out yesterday that existing legislation gives the Home Secretary powers to deport foreign criminals. So the new legislation will be symbolic: Look we are acting! Opponents will acquiesce and play their part in the charade: Look we are being responsible in supporting the government in acquiring powers it already possesses.

I bet the Conservatives will back the new proposals. I would not be surprised if the Liberal Democrats felt under pressure to do so as well. Both opposition parties have fed the news machine in recent days, responding to every non-development as if it were another nail in Charles Clarke's coffin. Forget about the prospects for a progressive consensus. For now there is a xenophobic consensus.

But in party political terms this is a story going nowhere. The Government has learnt brilliantly the art of damage limitation. Mr Clarke was right to be patient and provide information only when it was accurate and as comprehensive as it could be. If he had popped up on an hourly basis over the last few days he would have lapsed into generalities and made some fatal error.

The model is the one followed in the case of the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, who faced a mad and nightmarish week while she collated the evidence in relation to sex offenders working in the community. When Ms Kelly had the details about what had happened, she made a statement and offered some meaningless remedies that, again, the opposition had trapped itself in to supporting. The storm subsided.

In both cases many columns were written in which journalists attempted to extrapolate wider lessons about the Government's competence, lack of direction and the rest. In reality they were cock-ups arising from arrangements that had been in place for years. They were not great and pivotal moments reflecting a fundamental shift in British politics.

Politics is febrile. Labour MPs are alarmed. Yet the Government has always been capable of monumental cock-ups while staying more or less on course. Think of the early months when Britain's membership of the euro was ruled out by a spin-doctor in a pub and Tony Blair was accused of doing favours for Bernie Ecclestone as a result of a generous donation to Labour. At the end of that particular year the Government received rave reviews. After the latest crises we still await a sea change, a sense that the tide in British politics is moving irreversibly in a different direction.

Admittedly John Prescott's sex life makes waves but the currents are not high enough to cause permanent damage. Some voters disapprove. Some do not give a damn. Some are amused. By the time of the next election Mr Prescott will almost certainly have left the Government. His passions will be irrelevant, forgotten by everyone except Mrs Prescott and others that have experienced them in some form or another.

Curiously the third of the alleged crises whirling around the Government has longer-term implications, although it has received less consideration. The ruthless heckling of the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, partly reflects the recklessly destructive ingratitude of the unions that have benefited from the huge increases in investment. But the noisy discontent reflects also the rushed attempts to apply wide ranging reforms that other equivalent countries phased in over at least 10 years and in a context of consistently higher spending.

In Britain reforms descend from the skies along with the billions. Choice, markets, performance by results, incentives for the private sector, budget deficits wiped out, revised targets, foundation hospitals. I feel the need for an operation after writing this sentence and I have hardly begun. Some of the reforms are necessary to challenge the complacency that arises in any institution when there are guaranteed fixed budgets irrespective of performance. But this is too much and too quick. Headline grabbing anomalies arise.

These tensions are nothing compared with the continuing internal fears over Mr Blair's proposals for schools contained in the bill backed with genuine enthusiasm by the Conservative leadership. That is why the local elections were always going to be difficult for the Prime Minister before the red herrings of recent days. He has framed the pivotal debate of the third term as one between "reformers" and supporters of the status quo when many Labour supporters advocate changes of a different kind. This remains the most dangerous terrain for Mr Blair and his party, more explosive than issues relating to foreign prisoners or Mr Prescott's libido.

Yet as with the general election last year disillusioned Labour supporters will stay at home, or switch to the Lib Dems or other smaller parties. Polls suggest that few will make the leap to the Conservatives, although David Cameron leads astutely.

The former Chancellor Nigel Lawson made a valuable insight in the middle of seemingly terminal crises afflicting the Conservative government early in 1991. He observed that the party winning the battle of ideas would triumph always at a general election. He argued that the Conservatives were still winning the ideological conflict. The Conservatives went on to win the 1992 election with ease.

For all its problems Labour remains the dominant force in the battle for ideas. Still a formidable campaigner, Mr Blair put the case as powerfully as ever at an election rally in south London yesterday, highlighting the potent combination of economic competence and social justice that has helped to win three elections.

Will many voters listen to Blair anymore? The local elections will provide a partial answer. If they are bad for Labour he stumbles in a deadly context in which there is a single strong alternative leader. Four aspiring and credible Labour candidates seeking the leadership would make Blair safer. Their conflicting ambitions would cancel each other out. But now there is Gordon Brown alone - still standing and waiting. Tomorrow he will be waiting more eagerly still.