Steve Richards: Mr Blair must decide whether he wants to leave a legacy of a united or divided party

Does he not realise he has the support of the Tory right because he is carrying out a right-wing policy?
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The Independent Online

With a flourish Tony Blair declared at yesterday's Downing Street press conference that his proposed reforms of secondary schools were "fundamental to the government, what we feel, what is our basic position". He would have been more accurate if he had stated that the changes were fundamental for him, what he feels and his basic position. As a cabinet minister observed to me recently, the Prime Minister has reached the point where "l'état, c'est moi". What he believes to be right is right. If his party does not see the light, that is a problem for them.

Not that Mr Blair has lost interest in the party he leads. For Labour, it is more dangerous than that. He has convinced himself that the internal debate over his schools' reforms is as pivotal as Harold Wilson's failed attempts to modernise the trade unions in the late 1960s. Once more Mr Blair casts himself in the heroic role, the great reformer attempting to drag his party into the 21st century with the cheers of right-wing columnists ringing in his ears. In his view, schools and local authorities are the equivalent of the old trade unions. If Labour does not act, it will be doomed, and the Conservatives will implement the reforms instead.

I cannot recall a Prime Minister and his entourage setting up the stage so neatly for their political opponents. Last Thursday, the BBC's Political Editor, Nick Robinson, reported that a senior Downing Street adviser had told him that if Mr Blair did not get his way we would have to wait for a Conservative government to implement the reforms. Downing Street might as well put a "Vote Conservative" sticker on its window.

At yesterday's press conference, Mr Blair welcomed the support of the Conservatives, stating "I never have a problem when my opponents say they agree with me." Does he not realise he has the near universal support of the right in the Conservative Party and in the media because he is carrying out a right-wing policy?

In a revealing answer yesterday, Mr Blair said he was acting as a "parent first and as a politician second". I have long believed that Mr Blair's political outlook is based largely on his experiences living in Islington during the 1980s and 1990s. The Labour-controlled council was a disaster. The schools dependent on the council were a disgrace, as were other public services. Conversely, the private sector flourished, with new shops and restaurants opening on an almost weekly basis. Meanwhile, at a national level, Labour with its statist policies was losing elections. The Islington-based Mr Blair came to power wary of the state in any manifestation, in awe of the private sector and disdainful of the vote-losing instincts of the Labour party.

But personal experiences rarely translate into clear solutions for the country. I can counter with my own experiences living in a London borough where theoretical "choice" for parents has been the policy for years. There are self-governing schools, specialist schools, selective schools, comprehensives and private schools. The neurotically hyperactive middle-class parents soon sniff out which of the state schools are flourishing. It is easier to get a ticket for this year's World Cup final than attend an open day at such schools. They are so crowded that there is a need for extensive policing.

Securing a place at these schools is even more difficult. Soon parents curse the "choice" that sucks up all their energies and spare time. They yearn for a simpler system where kids go to their local school as a matter of course. Public sector Islington was a nightmare for the Blairs. The jungle of choices offered in some London boroughs is equally nightmarish.

More destructive still is to compare this moment with Labour's fatally narrow-minded conservatism in the late 1960s, when the party failed to address the growing powers of the trade unions. In making such a comparison, Mr Blair implies that Alastair Campbell, Mr Campbell's partner Fiona Miller, Neil Kinnock and Estelle Morris are backward-looking, whereas William Rees Mogg, Rupert Murdoch and the former Thatcherite minister Michael Forsyth are the far-sighted progressives as they declare their support for his reforms. He is doing his own leadership a disservice in implying yet again that Labour is unchanged when he did so much to change it. He also dismisses too casually a series of genuinely independent and authoritative reports that suggest the reforms will lead to a two- tier system in the way that his critics suggest.

Some argue that this is another example of an over-hyped debate in which Mr Blair exaggerates the significance of his reforms. But I agree with Mr Blair that this is an important debate. Ultimately, those on the centre left believe in the value of elected and accountable bodies having a key role in the development and cohesion of local communities. Those on the right argue market forces, competition and the private sector matter more, which is why it is logical for the Conservatives to enthuse genuinely about the schools White Paper. More broadly, the divide explains why the likes of Roy Hattersley, previously on the right of the Labour Party, is placed now to the far left.

Sadly, internal opposition serves only to convince Mr Blair and some in his inner circle that they are right and their wretched party is wrong. Like the extremists that destroyed Labour in the 1980s, some of them care less about party unity than promoting their agenda. If support comes mainly from outside their own party, then that is a problem for the party rather than them.

Except there are some very odd and contradictory developments taking place. Labour's whips spent the weekend phoning rebel MPs in an attempt to establish what concessions are necessary to secure their support. A senior government insider has told me that Downing Street will make significant compromises after the education committee has published its report later this week. Also, some of Mr Blair's less evangelical allies are telling him directly that he cannot go down in history as the leader that split his party. But yesterday's press conference suggests it is the more extreme advisers that are prevailing, those that believe in effect that if New Labour does not act like a Conservative government it will lose power to the Conservatives.

Unlike some of his more deranged critics, I have no doubt about Mr Blair's personal integrity and decency on this and other matters. He acts out of conviction that his reforms will improve schools. But he must decide whether he wants his legacy to be a modern united Labour party ready to support many sweeping reforms, but not these ones, or one that is split as he promotes ideas and policies supported enthusiastically by those on the right. He will fall off the high wire on which he is precariously perched if he turns away from his wider duties as a party leader.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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