The Week in Politics: After more than six years in power, Blair reaches fork in the road

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The Independent Online

After six and a half years in power, Tony Blair admitted yesterday that his Government had reached a "fork in the road". So has his increasingly difficult relationship with his deeply disenchanted Parliamentary Labour Party. As I watched the Prime Minister's speech in Newport, launching his "big conversation" with the public about the "difficult challenges" facing Britain, I could not help thinking he also needs an urgent chat with his own MPs.

I had a "big conversation" with a Labour backbencher over lunch this week, one of the shrinking band of Blair loyalists who has not rebelled against the Government - yet. For him, allowing universities to charge variable top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year is a bridge too far, and he intends to vote against it.

The MP said: "Top-up fees will deter students from poor families from going to university because they will be worried about piling up massive debts. They will also shift them away from the best and most useful courses.

"Tuition fees will be the final straw for many of the middle class voters we won over in 1997; many former Tory supporters will return to the fold. We have already lost some people because of the Iraq war. They have gone to the Liberal Democrats and will not come back.

"The biggest question in politics is: can Tony Blair turn it round, and win back people's trust? He is trying to draw a line and start again. Consulting the public is all very well, but how does it fit with him saying he has 'no reverse gear'? I am not sure he can really change his ways."

It was not an isolated conversation. The revival of the Tories under their new management has provoked an outbreak of jitters on the Labour benches. For much of the Commons jousting between Mr Blair and Michael Howard in the Queen's Speech debate on Wednesday, the faces of Labour MPs were pretty sullen, in marked contrast to the rejuvenated Tories sitting opposite them.

Labour MPs with small majorities are already assessing their chances of survival in the transformed political landscape. More of them will be getting their calculators out after a YouGov poll yesterday showed the Tories two points ahead of Labour.

Although few Labour MPs expect the party to lose the general election, some believe that its 161 majority could be sharply reduced, leaving the Tories odds-on to win the following election. Some MPs have already worked out that the most vulnerable Labour MPs are mainly Blair loyalists, while most of the hardened rebels would retain their seats. So governing with a smaller majority would be a bed of nails for Mr Blair.

This is the nightmare scenario for Gordon Brown's followers. Even if Mr Blair stood down midway through the next parliament after calling a euro referendum, Mr Brown might have only two years in Downing Street at the fag end of Labour's term in office, unable to halt the slide to an inevitable defeat. So you can understand why, as the electoral clock ticks, the Chancellor gets edgy. He might realise his ambition to become prime minister, but he might never win an election.

Yesterday's launch of the "big conversation" was greeted with cynicism by some Labour MPs, political commentators and voters, as Mr Blair knew it would be. He believes that people's trust in politics is so low that the politicians must find new ways of engaging with them. By all accounts, he genuinely wants the "grown-up discussion" he talked about yesterday. Mr Blair accepts that policies such as foundation hospitals were unpopular because they were dropped from a blue sky on to Labour MPs and the public without the ground being prepared first. He acknowledges the need to take people with him if he is to launch another round of public sector and welfare reforms.

The ideas floated in yesterday's prospectus are designed to show that New Labour has not run out of steam and is addressing the future. This dovetails with the campaign to portray Mr Howard and the Tories as figures from the past. Some Blair advisers believe that the "Mr Poll Tax" label will be a millstone around the Tory leader's neck. Others are more cautious, fearing that he can give the Tories the momentum they need. Although some Labour MPs hope the "big conversation" will persuade the Prime Minister to abandon tuition fees, the Blairites insist the exercise will not reopen policies that have already been settled. With the battle lines drawn for a bitter parliamentary struggle over tuition fees, Mr Blair's problem is that his listening phase may have started a year too late.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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