The Week in Politics: Why this back-of-the-envelope reshuffle has left a growing sense of drift

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's messy reshuffle has prompted speculation that it marks the beginning of the end of the Blair era. That may be premature, but there is a growing sense among ministers that the new Cabinet needs to recover a sense of direction quickly.

The word "drift" has been muttered quietly in Downing Street in recent weeks. Some of Mr Blair's advisers are asking what his second term is about. If they don't know, pity the poor voters.

A debate is raging behind the scenes between Blairites who want to concentrate on "delivery, delivery and delivery" on public services and those arguing that the Government should sketch out a "third-term agenda", as David Blunkett did this week, to show it has not run out of steam.

Blair aides have been studying with interest a successful relaunch by Margaret Thatcher at the 1986 Tory conference, when she was suffering from mid-term "drift" in her second term. Manifesto proposals under the banner "the next moves forward" helped her win a third term.

Mr Blair probably needs a bit of both. Arguably, Labour will have to "deliver" on public services before it wins the right to serve a third term. It would be dangerous to take that for granted, when many voters think politicians are only in it for themselves.

The Prime Minister has, understandably, been diverted by the Iraq war, the euro and the new European constitution. He needs to reconnect with the voters on the core domestic issues and will try to do so in a speech on Tuesday.

The reshuffle was designed to switch the spotlight back to domestic matters and the package of constitutional changes was to show that Mr Blair has not lost his reforming zeal. But the announcements on Thursday and yesterday were rather botched, and raised more questions than Downing Street could answer. For me, it felt like a back-of-an-envelope operation, which ran into trouble when people such as Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon did not want the posts Mr Blair had in mind for them.

There is something symbolic about the regrettable departure of Alan Milburn and replacing him with John Reid at the Department of Health. Mr Reid is a safe pair of hands who will ensure Mr Blair's writ runs at Health. But he is not Mr Milburn.

The absence of Blairites to promote to the Cabinet is a serious problem. David Clark, a former special adviser to Robin Cook, said yesterday the Blair regime was approaching "tipping point", an idea I explored in this column last week.

The reshuffle leaves Mr Blair more dependent on Gordon Brown. If they really have settled all their differences, that doesn't matter too much. But I am not sure they have. This week's announcement on the euro had the signs of a compromise that deferred many crucial questions - not least when Britain might join - to another day.

The departure of Mr Milburn, and the recent loss of Robin Cook and Clare Short, leaves the Cabinet room a duller and less colourful place. As Ms Hewitt noted recently, Labour is in danger of looking "dislocated" from the people. "We will be painted as the party of technocrats and managers, indistinguishable, as in Orwell's Animal Farm, from the very establishment we worked so hard to overturn," she warned. The changes announced this week may do little to prevent this. Mr Blair needs to make a good speech this week.

¿ One bizarre aspect of the reshuffle was the announcement that Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, would double up as Scottish Secretary, while Peter Hain, the new Leader of the Commons, will stay as Welsh Secretary too.

This raises the intriguing prospect of Mr Hain sending a letter to himself if he wants some Welsh legislation included in the Government's programme, and Mr Darling lobbying himself over Railtrack's work in Scotland, under his transport brief.

¿ Mr Blair refused to say how many of the five euro tests had been passed, saying: "It's a bit like discussing the English midfield formation." He was right. England played a "4-1-2-1-2" - or "diamond midfield" - system against Slovakia on Wednesday.

Eurosceptics hailed Mr Brown's verdict as a "4-1 defeat" for the "yes" camp, while Europhiles called it "2-1-2" because two of the failed tests would be passed if the remaining two were. If England ever wins 5-0, then you'll know we're going into the euro.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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