Steve Richards: Blair has promised a smooth transition - now he must show that he means it

It would be disastrous for Labour if he is perceived to be a victim of a left-wing coup
Click to follow

What a gift for the Conservatives: the new Home Secretary, John Reid, popped up in interviews at the weekend to dismiss internal dissenters as Old Labour vote-losers. The Conservative leadership and powerful anti-Labour newspapers warn persistently that, when Tony Blair goes, Labour will return to old vote-losing habits. Mr Reid confirmed that this was possible. He might as well have toured the studios with a "vote Conservative" sticker on his lapel.

After last week's local elections, a significant number of anxious mainstream Labour MPs raised their heads above the parapet. As a result, it was Mr Reid who sounded extreme while some of the dissenters appeared, in contrast, to be mild-mannered pragmatists. Still the pugnacious minister has done his party a favour. Inadvertently he illustrates that the need for a stable and orderly transition is more than a cliché and more also than a polite code for stating that Mr Blair should resign now.

The biggest danger for Labour as a governing party is the perception that, when Mr Blair departs, the party will indeed return to a mythical past where leading players went out of their way to adopt vote-losing policies. New Labour has been an astonishingly successful electoral force. While other centre-left parties govern fleetingly, New Labour has won three elections. Evidently, Labour can win again only with a broad coalition of support. If the transition from Blair to Brown is not smooth, and varying parts of the New Labour coalition at Westminster lapse into civil war, the party is doomed to a long period of opposition.

Mr Brown realises this with a sense of feverish frustration. Some of his supporters urge him to strike Mr Blair down. He knows that this would lead to a permanent collapse of the coalition, played out in front of a media ready to turn against the Labour Party.

At his press conference yesterday, Tony Blair was subtler than his devoted ally, Mr Reid. He is an astute reader of political mood music, and a melodious composer too. In a weaker position than before, and surrounded by headlines about civil war, his tone was less confrontational. He stated that, of course, there would be a stable and orderly transition. Naturally his successor would be given time to "establish himself". Mr Brown was New Labour to the "end of his finger tips" and his chosen successor.

Yet behind the scenes, he has been less emollient. At the end of last year and the beginning of this, there were several meetings between Blair and Brown instigated by allies of both. Mr Blair attended them reluctantly and broke them off altogether when newspapers wrote about the emergence of a dual premiership and the party treasurer, Jack Dromey, raised explosive questions about Labour's finances. More encouragingly for those who recognise the need for a harmonious switch from one leader to another, it was Mr Blair who called a meeting with Mr Brown after his press conference yesterday.

But in the present stormy context, this does not mean very much. Mr Blair tends to show an interest in smooth transitions when he is under immense pressure. The interest can fade easily. In particular, Mr Blair's distinctive policy agenda is often presented provocatively as being uniquely New Labour while any internal critics are dismissed crudely as "anti-reform".

What has changed in recent months is that in several significant cases mainstream New Labour dissenters have surfaced. They are not anti-reform, but have analysed forensically the reforms being implemented at the moment and worry about their impact. They propose other modernising reforms that in no way echo Old Labour, whatever that term means.

Indeed as far as that term means anything at all, it could be applied as easily to Blair and Reid. While he was Health Secretary, Mr Reid signed off the GP contracts that gave doctors Old Labour-style pay rises. Now Blair and Reid argue passionately for pensions to be linked to wages, another substantial spending commitment advocated famously by Barbara Castle in the 1990s.

What is Old Labour? Who is Old Labour? The term is hopelessly imprecise. Mr Blair relies too often on these vague chronological definitions. At the election, it was Forward not Back. Yesterday he warned about the dangers of "reversing New Labour". What does that mean? Who of any significance is arguing for a return to the past?

Among sensible dissenters, the problem is not personal. Recently I witnessed the former ministers Estelle Morris and John Denham in intense discussion about Mr Blair's schools' policy over a cup of tea in Westminster. They were not rubbing their hands with glee about the fact that Mr Blair was having trouble getting the policies through. They were worried about the impact of the policies. Similarly some instinctive loyalists hear too many stories in their constituencies about well- run hospitals being forced to make big cuts. Already Patricia Hewitt has modified some of the changes introduced by her predecessors. None of them are "anti-reform".

In the coming months, tensions over policy will rise. Soon the schools' Bill returns to the Commons. Controversial decisions will be taken over pensions and nuclear power. Personality clashes come and go. Divisions over policy at a time when a leader is vulnerable are explosive.

In terms of the mood music, Mr Blair is right. It would be disastrous for Labour if he is perceived to have been the victim of a left-wing coup. It would be wrong also for Mr Blair to give a public date for his departure. There would be chaos in the interim and the Tories would make hay. There is, though, a case for him working much more actively behind the scenes to ensure a smooth handover with Brown.

The stakes could not be higher for Labour. At the Independent's fringe meeting at the party conference last October, Ed Balls - now a newly appointed Treasury minister - pointed out that governing parties across the world fail to accomplish smooth transitions. Nearly always, a switch from one leader to another is accompanied by a period of traumatised opposition. The British Conservative Party is not alone.

Before the 1997 election, Roy Jenkins told Mr Blair that he was carrying a valuable porcelain vase across a crowded room: one slip and the vase would smash into a thousand pieces. Mr Blair was leader of the Opposition then and seeking a first election victory. Mr Jenkins's evocative image applies once more, only several key figures are carrying the vase and they are tired and wary of each other.

There are no angels in this drama, but what is certain is that if Mr Blair's closest allies condemn Mr Brown and his supporters as anti-reform and Old Labour the vase will smash into at least a thousand pieces.

Perhaps Mr Reid should focus on his new ministerial brief. There are plenty of porcelain vases at the Home Office as well.