Steve Richards: Now Blair has the mandate, he has no option but to deliver

Labour must end its frightened-rabbit routine and choose between European-style public services and US-level taxes
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's historic triumph means he has no option but to rise to the occasion. Blaming the Conservatives' record in office will not wash any more, nor will any cowardly postponement of awkward decisions until another election victory is secured in four years' time. Mr Blair's first term as Prime Minister was defined by his desire to win a second election and his irrational doubts about whether this would be possible. The Government suffered from a fearful caution rather than a preening arrogance. It was not arrogant enough.

After this second victory, Mr Blair intends to pay less attention to the focus groups and the screaming headlines. Whether he is capable of breaking the habits of a Prime Ministerial lifetime is open to question, but this is the moment to try. For several years he will be facing virtually no coherent opposition from the main opposition party.

With a funereal symmetry, William Hague disappeared as quickly as John Major did four years ago. Both announced their resignations within hours of the polls closing. At least in 1997 Mr Major discovered there was life after death. He went off to watch the cricket. Mr Hague went for a lie down. For him there was no silver lining, not even a bout of judo.

Michael Heseltine has warned that his party must avoid the fate of Labour in the 1980s. In some ways the situation is already even worse for the Conservatives. They have faced their second slaughter in a row without making any progress at all. At least in 1987 Neil Kinnock gained a few seats and saw off the threat of the SDP/Liberal Alliance. He had a few straws to cling to, some hope for the future. Around Mr Kinnock, and indeed around Michael Foot, there were also crowds of rising or established stars with a sense of how Labour could recover. The Conservatives' only front-bench star, Michael Portillo, has headed for Morocco this weekend in the search for inspiration.

Mr Blair deliberately set out to humiliate the Conservatives in order to create more political space for himself ­ especially over the issue of Europe. The appointment of Jack Straw as Foreign Secretary casts fresh light on his strategy. Mr Straw is an agnostic on the euro. His predecessor, Robin Cook, made a big political miscalculation in assuming his support for the euro would protect him. Mr Blair became convinced some time ago that the Treasury's review of the economic conditions must be seen to be impartial and robust. A declaration of support from Mr Straw once the review is over would carry much more weight than Mr Cook announcing that "the review has confirmed what I knew to be the case all along".

For some time to come Messrs Blair, Brown and Straw will hide behind the veil of the Government's review. They will not come out fighting for the euro for the obvious reason that such a move would pre-empt and undermine that review. Instead Mr Blair will look to leading trade unionists and business leaders to put the case more openly over the next few months.

Whether the likes of John Monks, the TUC general secretary, can raise the political temperature, while cabinet ministers go around like frightened rabbits, is doubtful. Not that Mr Monks will be entirely alone. Peter Mandelson made it clear in the early hours of Friday morning that he will speak out on the euro. During interviews in which Robin Cook pretended to be thrilled by his demotion, he stressed also that he would be in charge, as Leader of the Commons, of pushing through any legislation on the referendum. It was the only piece of possible legislation he chose to mention. In his darkest moment he was making mischief. Though seriously weakened, Mr Cook is not out of the game. He is a sparkling Commons performer, a quality of no great use on a trip to Delhi or the Middle East. He will feel freer to put the coded case for the euro.

On the euro Mr Blair is keeping his famous options open. With a growing passion, he wants to join. With a steely determination, he does not want to lose a referendum or blow his reputation for economic competence. In my view it is more likely ­ just ­ that the review will declare in favour of entry. But the stifling of debate until then means that the Cabinet, and many Labour MPs, will be ill-equipped to lead a subsequent campaign. The promise of a referendum is a useful device for neutering explosive issues. But in the end it creates more problems than it solves ­ as the Irish government has discovered with its plebiscite on the Nice treaty.

The odds are equally tight on the question of whether Mr Blair can raise public services to European standards, the other decisive issue of his second term. He has given the impression that German standards of medicine and French standards of transport can be met without any of us having to pay for it. The Prime Minister won the election argument by comparing his spending plans with Mr Hague's and Oliver Letwin's. But what about the spending plans of nearby countries? The Germans spend 10 per cent of their national wealth on healthcare, 3 per cent more than Britain. During the campaign the French launched their new high-speed train, taking passengers from Paris to Marseilles in three hours twenty minutes. The high-speed machine showed what the French aspire to and achieve. Italy and Germany are soon to launch similar models. In Britain we are discouraged from even having the aspiration.

Tony Blair will have to choose between European-style services or American levels of tax. There is no third way. Given the emphasis he has placed on the revival of public services he has already made the choice. The private sector will not provide all the additional cash that is required. Gordon Brown will have to find more stealth taxes. This will not be easy. The Chancellor is already in the contradictory position of being famous as a stealthy taxer.

Worryingly, the attitude of voters to central government is becoming the same as it is to local government, where turnout has been low for decades. Some voters see no links between their own lives and the activities of elected politicians. The middle classes are increasingly using the private sector. Those who use the public sector are often let down by it. A convincing attempt by the Government to revive public services could help to re-establish a connection again between politicians in Westminster and the quality of voters' lives. The stakes are as high as that.

In the first term, Mr Blair behaved most of the time as if he had a majority of one, almost as if he would have been happier with a fragile majority. This time he will need the buttress of his massive landslide if he is to propel Britain into the euro and improve public services. His great achievment has been to create a benevolent political landscape. Now he has to make the most of it.