Steve Richards: Tony Blair could split Labour and provide the perfect stage for years of Tory rule

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The Independent Online

At his Downing Street press conference this week, Tony Blair projected himself as a political leader who possessed a unique boldness and wisdom. His opponents to the left of him (his own party) were wrong. His opponents to the right were also wrong, even though they tend to agree with what he is doing. With relish, he claimed to be fighting on all fronts, the presidential leader with no more general elections to contest but a mission to accomplish.

A few years ago, his overwhelming political objective was to be popular with the voters and the media. Now he rationalises that unpopularity is a form of vindication. If I were a Labour MP in a marginal seat, I would be very worried. If I were David Cameron watching that press conference I would be rubbing my hands with glee. It was an alarming event that merits greater scrutiny.

Mr Blair began his conference by setting up a false divide. He stated: "We can either retreat into a political comfort zone, ducking the difficult decisions in favour of a quiet life, or push ahead with the programme of change and reform." Who is calling for a quiet life or entry into a comfort zone?

Quite often, it has been Mr Blair who has sought the quiet life by adapting policies and headline-grabbing initiatives in order to please the media and the focus groups. His basic political strategy of staying rooted on the centre ground is the ultimate comfort zone. Quite often, he has been the one to avoid hard choices, seeking to be close to the US and Europe, telling Gordon Brown that he wants more public spending and tax cuts.

More specifically, the real debate in relation to schools, pensions and the NHS is over the nature of the reforms being proposed by Mr Blair. Mainstream figures on the centre-left do not argue that there should be no reform in these areas. Instead, they look at the evidence, and worry that some of the more zealous NHS reforms are causing avoidable disruption. Evidently, this is a worry shared by the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, who is amending urgently some of the changes already implemented by her ultra- Blairite predecessors.

There are also genuine concerns that, without a more clearly defined admissions policy, schools will select pupils in a way that divides communities and causes chaos. On pensions, the Government has already made a radical choice in targeting resources on the poor. It needs to make some more awkward decisions now, but apparently only Mr Blair is capable of facing up to the tough choices although others were more involved in shaping the previous radical policies in relation to pensions.

Developing his misguided thesis, the Prime Minister argued that previous reforms, such as the introduction of top-up fees for universities, had been the subject of raging controversy, but are now widely accepted. This is not the case. As I have mentioned, some of the NHS reforms implemented by Ms Hewitt's predecessors are now being amended in precisely the way critics warned would be necessary.

Now the Conservatives support top-up fees on the basis that they are a Conservative policy. Stupidly, the Conservatives opposed them in the last parliament when they should have stepped forward and taken a bow, arguing that their beliefs were still shaping the agenda. Many on the centre-left worry still that the fear of debt will deter poorer students and that, before long, some universities will be allowed to set much higher fees without deserving to do so.

Finally at the press conference, Mr Blair put forward his central thesis. He argued that New Labour, or to be more precise his version of New Labour, is "making the weather". He argued it would be daft when David Cameron is moving on to similar terrain to move away: "It is the agenda around which everyone is trying to congregate."

On the surface, this makes complete sense, but dig a little deeper and the analysis is bleakly negative and cautious. Mr Blair has not managed to convert the Conservatives into new ways of thinking. All that has changed is that Mr Cameron is clever enough to realise that when Mr Blair introduces Conservative policies he should support them.

As the former adviser to William Hague, Danny Finkelstein, observed on the BBC yesterday, Mr Blair is in trouble because he is following a right-wing agenda while leading a left-of-centre party. Here it is the internal tension that is so unusual, and explains also why Conservatives and Conservative-supporting columnists tend to admire and agree with Mr Blair.

Not surprisingly, Mr Blair offered a different interpretation. "I am battling on all fronts because I think we are doing the right thing". But he is always claiming to be battling on all fronts. Within a year or two of gaining power, he bore the scars on his back and was apparently making tough choices while introducing revolutions in welfare and the NHS.

He has always been in the contradictory position of clinging pragmatically to the centre ground while projecting himself as a bold crusader. Now he notes at his press conference there are a "whole lot of attacks from the left and right of me".

The signal this sends out to the electorate and the anti-Labour media is deadly. In effect, he claims with a presidential flourish: "Only I know the way ahead. Goodness knows what these people attacking me from the left will get up to when my noble battles are done."

A small group of allies fuels this dangerous strategy. The likes of Peter Mandelson and Alan Milburn tell him that only he can carry out the reform programme that will make their version of New Labour a permanent part of the political landscape.

They have convinced themselves that, for the sake of the Labour Party, they must press on. For them, it has become a crusade for their party and their country even if it undermines future Labour leaders and makes it increasingly easier for Mr Cameron to declare "Vote for a party that believes genuinely in reform" or the reforms that Mr Blair seeks to implement.

I had wanted to end the year by highlighting how brilliant Mr Blair was in the Commons earlier this week, defending the budget deal in Europe and exposing the severe limits of Mr Cameron's leap to the centre ground. I had wanted also to praise Mr Blair's resilience, dignity and good humour in the face of what is now a biased and unfair assault from newspapers and some publicly funded broadcasters.

But after that press conference, and having read the transcript several times, I join the assault. If he continues like this in the new year, he will split Labour fatally and provide a perfect stage for the real party of the centre-right to rule for years to come.