Where is the forensic criticism of all this Prime Ministerial policy-making?

There are some good ideas in these five-year plans, but I can also see some chaotic and iniquitous consequences
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The Independent Online

We are entering the phase in the political cycle in which a prime minister has maximum power. Ministers, MPs and party members do not want to rock the boat in the build-up to the next election even if some of them are privately alarmed at some of the policies that are being unveiled. At an earlier stage in a parliament, formidable internal dissenters would discreetly raise their voice and cause a bit of trouble. Some would even attempt to resist the zanier proposals surfacing from Downing Street. They will not do so now. As one former cabinet minister put it to me the other day: "In private, I despair over what Tony Blair is doing to the Labour Party. In public, I shall argue that he is a great prime minister who deserves a third term."

We are entering the phase in the political cycle in which a prime minister has maximum power. Ministers, MPs and party members do not want to rock the boat in the build-up to the next election even if some of them are privately alarmed at some of the policies that are being unveiled. At an earlier stage in a parliament, formidable internal dissenters would discreetly raise their voice and cause a bit of trouble. Some would even attempt to resist the zanier proposals surfacing from Downing Street. They will not do so now. As one former cabinet minister put it to me the other day: "In private, I despair over what Tony Blair is doing to the Labour Party. In public, I shall argue that he is a great prime minister who deserves a third term."

Until the general election, Mr Blair has the political floor. Lord Butler makes some damning pronouncements and the Prime Minister sails through the Commons debate. Mr Blair publishes some five-year plans that raise more questions than they address. No questions are asked. The plans are paraded as symbols of prime ministerial energy and appetite for the job. The details are for another day. The Conservatives seem incapable of exposing policy flaws, the media is not as interested in policy as it should be, and ministers want to win the next election.

Yet policies that are unveiled now will set the tone and the legislative programme for the years following the election. It was during this equivalent period in the run-up to the 1987 election that Mrs Thatcher and a small group of ministers devised the poll tax and placed it in the manifesto, a seemingly innocent policy that made no waves in the election campaign. Why was the poll tax greeted with total silence, not raised once in the build-up to polling day? Several senior ministers were alarmed. The Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, recognised right away that the policy would be a disaster. Sir Geoffrey Howe, who was not consulted about the proposal, sensed that all would not be well. They kept quiet, hoping that this was a problem that could be faced once the election had been safely won.

More astonishing was the inept silence from the Labour Party. Here was a gift of a policy, one that Labour could have paraded to alarm Middle England. After all, it is not every day that a government proposes to introduce an unpopular and costly tax that will hit its own supporters. Labour's leaders decided that it would be too risky for them to raise the issue, fearing that, in doing so, they would draw attention to Labour-controlled councils, the so-called loony-left local authorities. Labour was still in such disarray that the activities of its own supporters prevented it from effective attacks on the Conservatives.

As a result, the poll tax went unchallenged and Labour was slaughtered again. Equally important, the Conservative government was stuck with a disastrous policy. Perhaps if Labour had posed more of a threat, Margaret Thatcher would have thought twice about casually putting the proposal in the manifesto.

Labour's 2001 manifesto was devoid of many detailed policies, a characteristically defensive programme aimed at alienating no one. The second term therefore began in a vacuum that was slowly filled with policies that had not been put before the voters.

In order to avoid similar problems next time, Mr Blair has demanded a radical manifesto to shape his third term. Ministers and advisers have sought to deliver, and sometimes been told to go away and find ideas that are bolder still. Mr Blair is ideologically rootless so these demands tend to be rather vague. As I argued on Tuesday, he is a tactician of genius, sensing what the Conservatives might be up to and getting there first, forcing them further to the right. He is less effective at coherent implementation of policy, as the somewhat erratic programmes of the last seven years have illustrated.

The five-year plans are, therefore, much more important than symbols of prime ministerial intent to go on and on. They will form the basis of the election manifesto and the early legislative programme of a third term. In theory, the questions about those plans should be raging. How will the most popular self-governing schools decide which pupils to turn away? Precisely how will successful schools be able to expand, and will they remain so appealing to parents when they become larger institutions? What is the difference between selecting pupils on the basis of aptitude rather than ability? How will successful hospitals meet national targets to reduce waiting lists when patients will exercise their new freedom to choose by selecting the best hospitals, thereby increasing the waiting times? Will the successful hospitals be deemed as failures because their waiting times have increased?

There are some good ideas in these five-year plans, but I can see some chaotic and iniquitous consequences arising from them. Sadly, the Conservatives have become wedded to policies that are almost a celebration of chaos, proposing cuts in some areas and misdirected spending in others. Whenever their leaders probe Mr Blair, he can respond by focusing on their policies. This is how he escaped from the Butler report, by taunting Michael Howard: "You supported the war, but would now oppose the motion that gave the go-ahead for the conflict." Huge cheers from Labour MPs, even though many of them opposed the conflict. The failure of Michael Howard becomes a triumph for Tony Blair.

In the meantime, the media is good at getting worked up about non stories such as Cheriegate or Black Rod and the Queen Mother's funeral, but, perhaps because there are fewer specialist correspondents around these days, tends to avert its gaze on policy- related issues. As for ministers, they are pleased to be there after 18 years of opposition. They will spend their summer holidays worrying about the reshuffle, not the policies that will form the programme for a third term.

When Mr Blair's policies do not go to plan, he tends to change the nature of the hyped-up arguments that preceded them. To take a recent example, opponents of the Iraq war warned that a conflict would heighten the risk of terrorism. Now that terrorists are indeed bleakly flourishing in Iraq, Mr Blair does not acknowledge his opponents were right. Instead, he has the chutzpah to claim the appalling violence vindicates the decision to go to war. In a few years, I can see poor cabinet ministers getting the blame for the chaos in schools and hospitals. Reshuffles will take place, and in the end the policies will be refined or radically altered. Mr Blair will argue this is what he had intended for schools and hospitals all along.

As internal dissenters keep their heads down, this is a time for forensic criticism of prime ministerial policy making from the Opposition. Instead, the Conservatives seem to be contriving a new divide between those in the party who live in Notting Hill and older generations who live in the country. I suppose it makes a change from rowing about Europe.

steve.richards@independent.co.uk

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