Steve Richards: Does Tony Blair realise the seriousness of the opposition on his own back benches?

In his final phase as Prime Minister, he has no choice but to refocus the priorities that have shaped his career
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The Independent Online

During previous crises Mr Blair and his senior allies anxiously posed three key questions. What is Gordon Brown up to? Where does this leave the Conservatives? How is the story playing in the media? Only as an afterthought and in the most exceptional circumstances was a fourth question asked: What is the mood of Labour MPs?

Yet this final question matters more now than any other. Currently Mr Blair is in the familiar position, one that he has staked out instinctively when previous crises whirled around him. He rails against parts of his party with the support of Rupert Murdoch's mighty newspapers. In respect to his unswerving stance on terrorism he rattles the Conservatives who twitch nervously about opposing the wishes of the police. Once more the old wizard has reduced the Conservatives to a state of bewildered confusion. At the same time opinion polls suggest a majority supports Mr Blair's approach to the threat posed by terrorists. The Prime Minister rarely asserts his uncompromising boldness without checking first that most voters approve.

Yet again he ticks the usual boxes. From such a position he has been buffeted before and strode on triumphantly. But the changed political situation means that none of this matters very much. Mr Murdoch and positive opinion polls cannot win a vote in the Commons. Instead Mr Blair finds himself in the unusual position of having to consider the views of his MPs above all other factors.

The significance of this development cannot be underestimated. A highly perceptive Blairite Labour MP, one of the few that spoke publicly in Mr Blair's defence last week, takes a subtly different view in private. He tells me that during past crises he knew Mr Blair was safe. There was no mechanism for destroying him. Dissenters had no obvious trigger. Now they have one. They can defeat him in the Commons on proposals for terrorism, education, and welfare reform. The MP believes that Mr Blair and his allies in Downing Street do not realise how serious the new situation has become.

There is public affirmation of this assessment. On GMTV's Sunday Programme the Labour MP, Jon Cruddas, argued that reforms were being rushed through without a proper assessment of the evidence. Mr Cruddas worked in Downing Street for much of the first term. The former minister, Nick Raynsford, complained of an appetite for gimmicks and headlines rather than properly thought through policies. Another former minister, Kate Hoey, said that MPs were fed up with being lectured at by Mr Blair. Such figures are not persistently rebellious or associated in any way with the left-wing Campaign group that has dissented more regularly.

As I argued last Friday, it would be disastrous for the future electoral prospects of Gordon Brown and the Labour party if Mr Blair were to end his Prime Ministerial career perceived as being destroyed by backward-looking MPs. I stress that this would be the perception and not entirely related to reality. Some of the MPs' concerns in relation to the reforms to the public services and the anti-terror legislation are insightful and thought through. But in politics perceptions often overwhelm what is really happening. If there is a sense that a modernising Blair has been booted out by a backward-looking party, Labour will lose the next election, not least because David Cameron is about to give fresh meaning to the term "political honeymoon". Already Mr Cameron's banalities are elevated to the status of philosophical tracts.

In his final phase as Prime Minister Mr Blair has no choice but to refocus the priorities that have shaped his Prime Ministerial career. He must spend more time with his MPs, discussing, consulting and in some cases conceding ground. In the 1970s Harold Wilson and James Callaghan would have died to be in the crisis that Mr Blair faces. They had to compromise with MPs in order to get their way on the construction of a climbing frame in a playground in Ipswich.

So far there is little sign on the surface that Mr Blair is willing or capable of acting differently. At yesterday's Downing Street press conference, he portrayed himself once more as the bold revolutionary making the difficult choices. Such Thatcher-style posturing is not the wisest way of persuading doubtful MPs, not least because boldness is subjective and does not necessarily lead to good policies. Mr Blair also framed the debate in respect to the terror laws in a characteristically provocative and misleading manner. He argued that opponents were bothered more about the civil liberties of the suspects than the security of the country. But his opponents are concerned mainly that a 90- day imprisonment without a formal charge would fuel terrorism rather than address it.

There are some strong arguments to challenge that generalised and easily made riposte, not least the promised weekly judicial oversight of detainees and the irrefutable evidence that in some cases the police need significantly more time to compile material against suspects. But too many MPs feel ignored and do not want to be hectored any longer. Some fume about the process of policy making as much as the policies. For Mr Blair, Parliament must be his number one focus from now on, not necessarily a bad development in what is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy.

What makes the current situation so explosive is that in the end there is a limit to what can be done if Labour MPs disagree with Mr Blair's policies. This is nothing to do with Mr Blair's authority. It is more serious than that, a titanic conflict over the direction of policy without obvious resolution.

Here is the only way through. I predict that Mr Blair will compromise rather than suffer a series of humiliating defeats in the Commons in relation to terror, the reform of public services and welfare. Indeed I detect a new strategic theme on all policy fronts. In effect Mr Blair is stating: "I am unswervingly and wholeheartedly convinced that these policies are best for the country. I will never change my mind on this, but if I cannot get them through Parliament the policies will have to change."

This is what he is already saying in relation to the anti-terrorist legislation. His uncompromising language at yesterday's press conference was wholly at odds with events, which included the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, indicating he was ready to make concessions.

We are at another classic Blairite moment. It will become the contradictory theme of his final phase in power. The Prime Minister is utterly resolute as he compromises.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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